Having heard international lute superstar Nigel North live in concert twice, I was eager to get a hold of this recording, his latest on Linn, and the first on SA-CD. As North explains in his notes, both the music – there are about 2000 pieces for solo lute from the period – and the instrument “bridge the two worlds of ‘popular' and ‘art' music.” North plays eight and nine course lutes based on 17 th century models (a “course” is a group of, usually, two identical strings that are plucked together, except for the highest notes, which use one string, and the lowest, which use two an octave apart). The repertoire is the music of master lute composer/performer John Dowland (1563-1626) and his contemporaries, some famous, some less famous, and a few anonymous. North has made several recordings of transcriptions for lute, but all of the music here was originally written for the instrument, with the exception of the two pieces by William Byrd, which were transcribed by anonymous Elizabethan lutenists. As the term “ballad” suggests, and as anyone at all familiar with Dowland will probably expect, the pieces are often melancholy, but this is a thoughtful, inventive, and often intricate melancholy that never becomes gloomy. Composers writing ballad variations produced some of the most expansive (over six minutes) pieces for solo lute, and a few of these larger works are performed in this recital, which ends with Dowland's own poignant version of “Go from my Window” and his contrapuntal masterpiece “Loth to Depart.”
I must confess a slight embarrassment at so enjoying pieces with names such as “John, Come Kiss Me Now.” But with few exceptions (I'm not so sure about the second Byrd transcription, “The Woods So Wild”), the music and performances here are deeply satisfying. A musician from the age of seven and a lutenist from the age of fifteen, North has the sort of relaxed command of the technique that can make anyone who hasn't watched his fingers as he plays forget the music's difficulty. The three ballad “couplets” (“My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home,” “Walsingham,” and “Go From My Window”) are enjoyable and make for interesting comparisons. North sometimes switches instruments between versions, and the second version (by Byrd, Dowland, and Dowland, respectively) seems the more emotionally intense in each case. Throughout, North's tremendous technical skill allows him to convey the structural and emotional sophistication of music that a superficial listening, or a lesser performer, might suggest is merely pleasant.
As with the other Linn SA-CDs I have heard, this is not the most exciting recorded sound, but it is clean, natural, and neutral. The microphone placement seems appropriately close for a quiet solo instrument. The perspective is focused without making it seem like there is a giant lute in your room. Room acoustics are quite subtle, if that, so it does sound more like the lute is in your room than like you are in its room. There is little audible breathing and only moderate instrument noise, in other words, enough to sound authentic (except one or two minor glitches) without being distracting. Throughout the recording, there is quite low but still discernable noise from the recording equipment. It is nowhere near annoying, but it still falls just short of the perfectly black background that can be achieved, where there is no discernable difference between a recorded natural silence and a signal gap between tracks. Overall, the sonics serve the music and performance very well, allowing the listener to experience the highly nuanced sound of what North tells us was “undoubtedly the most important instrument at all levels of [early 17 th century English] society.” The sonics are evenhanded and unobtrusive, never flinching from the wonderful resonance of the larger instrument to the arresting tones of the lute's surprising fortissimo notes.
Confidently recommended even to those who would not really expect to enjoy an hour of solo Renaissance lute. If your idea of the lute is someone just strumming away while the real action is sung, you owe it to yourself to hear this excellent demonstration of the
instrument's expressive potential, played by a master and captured with very acceptable sonics.
© Lyle Crawford