John Dowland: In Darkness Let Me Dwell (ECM New Series 1697)


John Dowland
In Darkness Let Me Dwell

John Potter tenor
Maya Homburger baroque violin
Stephen Stubbs lute
John Surman soprano saxophone and bass clarinet
Barry Guy double-bass
Recorded January 1999, Forde Abbey, Dorset
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Weep you no more, sad fountains;
What need you flow so fast?

So begins ECM’s first foray into the sounds and songs of John Dowland (1563-1626), Renaissance lutenist and a songwriter for all ages. While many have captures the dance of voice and strings by which he set his chisel to the lathe of courtly melancholia, the group of musicians assembled on this disc manages to carve something refreshingly immediate. Explains tenor John Potter, creative director of what would come to be known as the Dowland Project, “This is the first time anyone’s approached Dowland not from an ‘early music’ angle, but simply as music. We’re working with Dowland as though he were still with us.” The present recording foregrounds early music’s malleability and upholds Dowland as a great improviser. It is precisely this spirit that coheres Potter and his rogues-in-arms. Stephen Stubbs provides the requisite lute, and with it a boundless cache of creative energy for all to share. It was at the suggestion of producer Manfred Eicher that double-bassist Barry Guy and Baroque violinist Maya Homburger were brought on board. Yet the most seemingly incongruous instrumental addition was that of jazz reedman John Surman, who actually ends up being the most conservative of the instrumentalists, providing a steady bass clarinet continuo and smooth saxophonic lines throughout.

For this collection of ayres and other curios, Potter and company have hand picked a fine array for our auditory pleasure. The disc’s crowning highlights come from the First Book of Songs. “Come Again” synthesizes the melodic relay between Potter and Surman with the utmost respect, as do the visceral “Now, O Now I Needs Must Part” and “Come, Heavy Sleep.” Guy delights us with his palpable lyricism in “Go Crystal Tears,” a song in which Surman also succeeds to astonishingly brilliant effect. From the Second Book of Songs, we get two polar opposites. The mournful “Flow My Tears” flows like honey from a wilting hive and makes two appearances on the album. Fine Knacks For Ladies is a more whimsical number. Potter’s quiet refrain of “the heart is true” resounds with genuine delight. The Third Book of Songs gives up two tearful ghosts of its own, of which The Lowest Trees Have Tops walks the most precarious line between laughter and lamentation. Surman’s bass clarinet infuses the title song, taken from A Pilgrimes Solace, and acts like a fulcrum of emotional balance. Potter is at his finest here, caressing every word with ceremonial urgency. Rounding out the program are three selections from Dowland’s Lachrimae, a book of pavanes based on Flow My Tears. Two of these are instrumentals that go straight for the heart, while the final track, “Lachrimae Amantis,” finds Potter slipping into countertenor on a pure and open Ah.

While perhaps not as cohesive as the project’s later albums (those with perfect pitch may stumble here and there in this darkness), In Darkness succeeds with no small humility in looking beyond Dowland’s enchanting, affected veneer and into the vivacious and melodious heart within. All in all, this is an emotionally satisfying start to an intriguing New Series project.

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