Pavans and Fantasies from the Age of Dowland
John Holloway violin, viola
Monika Baer violin, viola
Renate Steinmann violin
Susanna Hefti viola
Martin Zeller bass violin
Recorded March 2013, Radio Studio Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Produced by Manfred Eicher
An ECM / SRF2 Kultur co-production
Executive producer (SRF): Roland Wächter
Violinist John Holloway has carved the deepest Baroque relief into ECM’s surface. With sole exception of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, he has since 1999 been accompanied by harpsichord and organ or cello continuo in thoughtful and superbly executed programs of music by such composers as Schmelzer, Biber, Veracini, Leclair. For the present disc he joins an all-string ensemble of period specialists in a book of music at once haunting and robustly fleshed. Not only is it renewing to hear Holloway free-floating in a choir of equal voices; his choice of material carries further significance for turning back the dial to one of the great masterworks of the late Renaissance.
The Lachrimae Pavans of John Dowland (1563-1626) take thematic root in composer’s evergreen “Flow My Teares,” a song last recorded for ECM by John Potter on his Dowland Project’s debut. By time the Lachrimae were published in 1604, Dowland had been court hopping for a decade. He composed the collection under the auspices of his then-employer, Denmark’s King Christian IV, whose sister-queen Anne was the subject of its dedication. In addition to being musical landmarks, the Lachrimae represent a watershed historical moment in English music publishing. They came at a time of great frustration for Dowland, who never realized his dream of holding post at the English court. But while melancholy pervades, there are sunlit glades to be discovered among the thickets.
Indeed, there’s plenty of sunshine to be had in the “Lachrimae Antiquae,” which prepares for its daily works with nightlong ablution. As from so much of what follows, its darkness seeps through like a contrapuntal substance of harmonic order. Dowland’s beauties turn supplication into strength and draw the clouds nearer to earth with every added layer. Both musicians and music move as one sinuous entity—must do so, in fact, to achieve the limpid consistency required of the “Lachrimae Tristes,” which as the program’s exact center is the most deeply hued jewel of this crown. The qualities of subsequent variations are as individual as their titles. “Lachrimae Coactae” is threadbare yet flourishing, “Lachrimae Amantis” more viscous, and the “Lachrimae Verae” a burnished hasp of a conclusion.
Shuffled into the Lachrimae are exemplary selections of English consort music from Dowland’s time. Of these, the Fantasy upon one note by Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is the most forthright, while the Fantasy for 2 Trebles and Bass of Matthew Locke (1621/3-1677) cradles fleeting exuberances in downtempo reflections. The brightest surfaces come from William Lawes (1602-1645), whose autumnal Fantasy in C for 5 is another highpoint of the literature assembled herein. John Jenkins (1592-1678) gets a nod in the form of his Fantasy No. 12 for 2 Trebles and Bass, a fugal ripple of a piece with ballroom denouement. Its contrast of floating highs and supportive brushwork from bass violin give it a most expansive reach. Last but not least is Thomas Morley (1557/58-1602), a key figure in realizing the Lachrimae in print, and whose Lamento for 2 (excerpted from his Canzonets for two voyces) is a slow dance between forest sprites, whose leaf-hidden conjugations harness moonlight in every step.
Although there’s so much to admire the form and content of this album, it’s just the tip of a mountain of contemporaneous sources. Listening to Holloway and friends making such sweet music is akin to skipping a perilous journey and diving straight into the treasure horde at the end of it. But its greatest value might just be the desire it inspires to backtrack and see what fruitful lodgings might have been missed along the way.
(To hear selections from Pavans and Fantasies from the Age of Dowland, click here.)