Dowland in the 21st Century
10 November 2013
During 2013 the musical world has been focusing on the bicentenaries of Verdi and Wagner with some attention also being given to the Benjamin Britten centenary. Not much notice has been taken, however, of the birth 450 years ago of the English lutenist and songwriter John Dowland. This was happily rectified with a recital given by Seaven Teares, sponsored by the Marais Project in the Refectory at the University of Sydney.
The Marais Project and Seaven Teares consist of a fluid group of early music specialists formed by Jennifer Eriksson. They concentrate on music written for the viola da gamba and their performances are normally centred around the works of Marin Marais. The scope of their music-making is much wider than this, however, as evidenced by their recent CD Lady Sings the Viol which presents music spanning the past four centuries.
The programme for Dowland’s ‘birthday bash’ satisfyingly sampled his songs and pieces for viol ensemble, as well as one for solo lute. The choice of the Refectory for the concert was inspired. It is of Elizabethan proportions, allowing the audience to sit close to the performers and retain the intimate feeling of the original performance rooms. Like many renaissance halls, there are galleries around the top and it even has a mural covering an entire wall. The acoustics are warm but clear – an ideal combination.
The performers in the group are among the finest early musical specialists in Sydney, so it is not surprising that the performance standards were impeccable. The viol ensemble was beautifully integrated and it was interesting to see Daniel Yeadon played a treble viol instead of his more familiar position playing the lower string line.
The soprano Belinda Montgomery is a superb interpreter of this music. Her clear, light soprano projected effortlessly in the small venue and her phrasing and judicious use of vibrato suited the music ideally. Tommie Andersson played only one lute solo but it demonstrated what a sensitive and technically gifted player he is.
The programme was well constructed. It consisted of short works by Dowland, with just one piece by the group’s namesake, Marin Marais. This provided a nice contrast in the more ornamented French style. The necessarily short pieces were grouped into brackets of two or three contrasting pieces which blended nicely into satisfying groups. The intervening breaks were a reminder that renaissance instruments need continual tuning. The German musician Johannes Mattheson wryly commented that if a lutenist lives to be eighty years old, he surely spends sixty years tuning his lute. Well, it would seem that viol players need even more time.
As an encore, the concert concluded with a lively rendition of Morley’s Now is the month of Maying in which the twinkle in Belinda Montgomery’s eyes underlined the meanings which the text just hinted at.
All in all, it was a superb concert. More please!
Larry Turner for SoundsLikeSydney©
Larry Turner has been singing in choirs for many years – both in Sydney and London. He is an avid attender of operas and concerts, with an emphasis on vocal music. He particularly enjoys music from both the great a capella period and the baroque – especially the lesser-known works of Bach and Handel. He has written programme notes for Sydney Philharmonia, the Intervarsity Choral Festival and the Sydneian Bach Choir and is currently part of a team researching the history of Sydney Philharmonia for its forthcoming centenary.