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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Nocturnal
Jakob Lindberg (lute and lute ‘mandorée’)
rec. Länna Church, Sweden, 2017
BIS BIS2082 SACD [83:17]

During my (far too many!) years as an academic, I spent much of my time writing about, teaching and editing English poetry of the Seventeenth Century. One of the fascinating by-ways of the rich and varied poetry of that period was a kind of sub-genre of short poems in which to or about his Mistress playing the lute (and in the process gives us some interesting sights as to how the lute was listened to). I’d like to begin by quoting one example of the many such poems; it is by the minor poet Samuel Pordage (1633-c.1691) and comes from his Poems upon Several Occasions (1660):

To Lucia Playing on Her Lute
When last I heard your nimble fingers play
Upon your lute, nothing so sweet as they
Seemed: all my soul fled ravished to my ear
That sweetly animating sound to hear.
My ravished heart with play kept equal time,
Fell down with you, with you did Ela climb,
Grew sad or lighter, as the tunes you played,
And with your lute a perfect measure made:
If all, so much as I, would your music love,
The whole world would at your devotion move,
And at your speaking lute’s surpassing charms,
Embrace a lasting peace, and fling by arms.

The poem makes claims both of a very intimate kind (as in the absoluteness of the poet’s identification with the music the lady plays on her lute) and of a universal nature (the music is said, in the last four lines, to have a kind of quasi-Orphic power).

I thought of this poem (and of others like it) when reading something said by Jakob Lindberg in his booklet-notes to this excellent SACD. Having played both guitar and lute for some years, Lindberg chose to devote himself to the lute. He did so, in part because of his admiration of “the historical repertoire of the lute” and also because he enjoyed “the sensual contact offered through plucking the lute’s pairs of strings with fingertips”. Playing and listening to the lute are both activities characterised by a particular intimacy. The erotic overtones of Pordage’s poem, its talk of the lady’s “nimble fingers playing” and the repeated use of “ravished”, for example, are not especially subtle but reinforce this sense of intimacy.

In the last four lines, a different claim is made. These lines are reminiscent of a better (and more famous) poem from earlier in the same century. It is sometimes attributed to Shakespeare, though it was probably the work of his younger friend and collaborator, John Fletcher (it appears in the play Henry VIII on which the two collaborated):

Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves when he did sing.
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung, as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.

Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing die.

Orpheus (a figure of paramount importance to poets, composers and music theorists of the Renaissance was often imagined as playing the lute, though some identified his instrument as the lyre.

Lindberg quotes from The Burwell Lute Tutor, which probably dates from the first half of the Seventeenth Century: “This instrument requireth Silence and serious attention”. It does indeed! The intimacy of the lute’s sound and the sense that a single musician is thereby communicating directly with the individual listener, makes it peculiarly suitable for home listening. However skilled the recording engineers and however ‘good’ the equipment on which the recording is played, I can never escape the sense that there is something ‘false’ about hearing, say, a Mahler symphony in one of the rooms of one’s house. Listening to a well-made recording of a good lutenist, on the other hand, feels like an entirely ‘natural’ experience, as if the musician really were in the room with one. That, in part, is why, in the last few years, I have found myself listening to recorded lute recitals more and more. I am delighted to add Lindberg’s Nocturnal to the lute recordings to which I shall return very frequently.

Lindberg is, of course, a significant figure amongst modern lutenists. He has recorded extensively for BIS, some of his finest albums including Lute Music from Scotland and France (1982), two discs of Venetian lute music (Serenissima I & II, 1988 and 1991) and the Complete Solo Lute Music of John Dowland (1994). If one calls (as one should) Lindberg a virtuoso. It is not because he dazzles with startling technical flights, but because his technique is such that the difficulties in some of the music he plays go unnoticed, and his control and certainty of touch (his intimacy?) are such that he can shape both individual details and matters of larger design with elegant intelligence and impressive lucidity. His playing has a quiet lyricism, entirely free of strain or inappropriate flamboyance. Some of Lindberg’s mot memorable moments (which are, again, the product of his virtuosity) come in passages of delicate and exquisite flirtation with silence.

The spine (as it were) of this album is provided by Lindberg’s own arrangement of Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland. Britten wrote this work (for solo guitar) for Julian Bream in 1963. In his last year of playing the guitar seriously, Lindberg was studying this work. He decided, subsequently, to make an arrangement for lute; Britten himself loved the lute and would surely have approved of this arrangement. Britten’s composition sounds very much at home on the lute, though Lindberg has, as he tells us, “transposed it down to manage the wide range of the work”. On the lute Britten’s Nocturnal sound more intimate, while also having a greater ‘gravity’. The beauty of Lindberg’s performance of his arrangement is such that its seventeen and a half minutes would, in themselves, be enough to make this disc a must-have for lovers of the lute.

But this disc offers a good deal more than just this one work. There are six pieces by Dowland himself. Lindberg is well established as one of the great interpreters of Dowland and his performances here would, of themselves, would be sufficient to demonstrate why he is so highly regarded. Particularly admirable is the reading of ‘Farewell’, in which, as Lindberg plausibly suggests, “the ascending chromatic theme, sounded many times, may represent Dowland’s effort to connect with the supercelestial world”. Also especially fine is the ‘Galliard to Lachrimae’, in which the famous/familiar theme is presented in triple time, resulting in a kind of uplifting melancholia.

Even those with only a passing interest in the English lute tradition will be familiar with the name (and, one hopes, with some of the compositions) of Dowland. And perhaps they will know something of John Johnson and Anthony Holborne. But Lindberg casts his net beyond the familiar to bring us ‘night pieces’ by such as Edward Collard, who is represented by two sets of variations; the first of these takes as its starting point the ballad tune ‘Go From My Window’ (Dowland also wrote a set of eight variations on this tune). While one would have to give the prize for musical richness to Dowland, Collard’s variations also have, as played by Lindberg, an attractive eloquence of their own. The other work by Collard is a set of variations on ‘Hugh Aston’s Ground’, i.e. on a bass progression by Hugh Aston (c.1485-1558), of which William Byrd and Thomas Tomkins also made use.

Throughout the SACD Lindberg proves (as if he needed to!) that he is a sympathetic and perceptive interpreter of the lute music of the Renaissance; it would be redundant to praise each track on this disc. For me the highlights (beyond the works already mentioned) included Bacheler’s limpidly dignified Pavan, the modal lament of ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ and Francis Cutting’s transcription of William Byrd’s ‘Lullaby’.

This is an outstanding, treasure of an album. Though made up, as it is, of what are effectively ‘nocturnes’ for lute it needn’t be listened to only late at night (though, indeed, it works well then!); the music, as interpreted by Lindberg, is full of details and subtleties which engage and reward a mind wide awake. All who love the lute should hear this album and, on doing so, will, I suspect, want to own it.

Glyn Pursglove
 
Contents
Anthony HOLBORNE (1545-1602)
1.The Honie-suckle [1:45]
2. Muy Linda [1:22]
3. The Night Watch [1:37]
4. The Countess of Pembroke’s Paradise [4:21]
5. The Fairy Round [1:27]
Edward COLLARD (fl.c.1595-99)
6. Go from My Window [3:20]
7. Hugh Aston's Ground [4:47]
Daniel BACHELER (1572-1619)
8. Pavane No. 18 [5:01]
John DANYEL (1563-c.1626)
9. Mrs. Anne Grene Her Leaves Be Greene [4:52]
ANONYMOUS
10. The Flowers of the Forest [1:05]
11. Remember Me at Evening [1:22]
12. The English Nightingale [2:58]
William BYRD (1543-1623)
13. Lullaby (Arr. for Lute by Francis CUTTING (fl.1583-c.1603)) [3:56]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76)
14. Nocturnal After John Dowland, Op. 70 (Reflections on ‘Come, Heavy Sleep’)
(Arranged for lute by Jakob LINDBERG) [17:48]
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
15. A Dream [2:41]
16. A Fancy [2:50]
17. Orlando Sleepeth [1:15]
18. Galliard to Lachrimae [3:03]
19. Mr. Dowland’s Midnight [0:56’
20. Farewell [5:30]
John JOHNSON (c.1545-94)
21. Passingmeasures Pavan [2:57]
22. Carman's Whistle [2:22]
23. Good Night and Good Rest [4:40]

 

 




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