The Dowland Project
John Potter voice
Stephen Stubbs chitarrone, baroque guitar
Maya Homburger violin
John Surman soprano saxophone, bass clarinet
Barry Guy double-bass
Recorded 2001 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
With In Darkness Let Me Dwell, ex-Hilliard Ensemble tenor John Potter did something very special for the early Baroque, for what at first seemed a wild reconfiguration of songs and motives from John Dowland and his contemporaries was instead an act of deference to the improvisatory spirit that moved the music’s inception. The song- and partbooks of Dowland’s time were never meant to be prescriptive, but to function as stepping-stones for musicians’ creative interpretations. Here this concept is taken to task, and the result is music that carries itself across great divides with fluency and, dare I say, charming care. The inclusion of reedman John Surman and bassist Barry Guy is therefore an easy one to digest in what may look on paper to be a potentially disastrous experiment but which is, in fact, a program of awesome originality, which is saying something in a market flooded with early music interpretations of varying quality.
The project has also become an appropriate venue for the music of lutenist Stephen Stubbs, who contributes four plaintive Refrains to the proceedings. The first of these begins the program and weaves an elastic and chromatic net for all that follows. Its biggest catch is without a doubt the title song by Jacobean composer Robert Johnson (1583-1634). It is presented to us in two versions. The first of these takes advantage of the entire ensemble, spinning on the edge of Maya Homburger’s tremulous violin. Potter leaps into falsetto territory against a backdrop of harmonics, even as the entrance of Surman’s soprano adds further dimension and scope. Not unlike Jan Garbarek’s work with the Hilliards, Surman feeds off the infrastructure of the music at hand, spinning from it a weave at once respectful and innovative. An interlude provides Surman room for an enchanting rumination before Potter returns to the fold. In its reprisal, Johnson’s venerable number comes to us as we might expect it: through the familiar strains of lute and voice alone. Johnson’s aching moods wash over us again in two more songs, of which “As I walked forth” is wrought with due restraint and commentary from Homburger.
The often-played “Accenti queruli” of Giovanni Felice Sances (c. 1600-1679) provides some relief from the heavy pool of sentiments in which it finds itself. The tune plays like a jam session and best exemplifies the spontaneity behind the project’s concept. The regretful note on which it ends dovetails smoothly into “Weep, weep, mine eyes.” This mournful ballad by John Wilbye (1574-1638) draws out the program’s splintered relationship to love, and expresses through its saxophonic lines a suitable harmony of word and context. Surman likewise proves himself a defining presence in “Angela siete” by Cherubino Busatti (1600-1644), for here woodwind and throat swap roles like ribbons around a maypole.
Benedetto Ferrari (c. 1603-1681) was a new name to me, and his “Già più volte tremante” is a stunning piece of notecraft. Though brief, its unexpected minor shifts and Monteverdian phrasing make for a heart-stilling monologue.Yet while this album is rich with such luscious music, a single tune by Cipriano da Rore (c. 1515-1565) is for me its flashpoint. We encounter his “Ancor che col partire” also in two versions, once with lute and violin and again with vocals. The latter ends the program with a slow flourish that descends into the crypt from which it sprang in search of sunshine.
Nothing about the Dowland Project cries gimmick. This is not a mere ploy to capitalize on overdone material, but an offering of sounds already so rich with implication that the musicians cannot help but explore those sounds for all they’re worth. Anyone wary of approaching albums like Officium may want to ease into this rewarding ECM niche with Care-charming sleep.