Music from Shakespeare’s England by Robert Johnson and John Dowland

Carolyn Sampson (soprano) &
Matthew Wadsworth (lute)
Matthew Wadsworth and Carolyn Sampson sat quietly on stage for some time before Wadsworth woke the lute so gently that its voice seemed to emerge almost imperceptibly from the silence. Two solos, a Preludium by John Dowland (1563-1626) and a Fantasia by Robert Johnson (1583-1633), unfolded into the night in shimmering waves of suspensions and divisions, following which Wadsworth thanked the audience for coming out on such a wet night, and hoped to make it worth their while. Which both he and Sampson certainly did.
The first bracket of songs comprised four by Johnson: three written for Beaumont and Fletcher’s play “The Captain”; one with words by that most prolific of poets, Anon. If there had been any gloom left in the afterglow of Wadsworth’s wonderful solo work, it would have been fairly pierced by Sampson’s clear, lovely soprano: every word audible, every phrase lovingly shaped and every tone weighted against the lute’s gentle chords. “Woods, Rocks and Mountains” was particularly effective, with Wadsworth’s improvised accompaniment (Johnson’s scores consist only of a melody with a bass line) adding subtle colours to the text.
Two more superb solo works came after the applause: Johnson’s Pavane in F minor and Almaynes I & II (the Almaynes being played as a unit). Again these were performed with the utmost refinement, the Pavane featuring Wadsworth’s own divisions on the main theme.
John Dowland was then ushered into the light again, this time with two songs (“In Darkness let me Dwell” and “Can She Excuse my Wrongs”) between which came the Earl of Essex Gallyard, upon which “Can She Excuse…” is based. Here the interpretations were beautifully restrained, Sampson avoiding unnecessary highlighting of the line “My musicke hellish jarring sounds to banish friendly sleepe” (from the first song) and leaving Dowland’s skilful word-painting to do the work.
Following the interval came two more Dowland songs, also interspersed by a lute solo: “Go Nightly Cares” and “If my Complaints could Passions Move”. Again, Sampson’s vocal line was limpid and flexible while never sacrificing intelligibility of the text. Wadsworth’s playing of Dowland’s substantial accompaniments were beautifully linked by the intervening Fortune, which solo with its stuttering phrases and trills conjured the image of a small bird singing hesitantly to the moon.
Another two lute solos by Johnson, the astonishing Pavane in C minor (with its brooding sweep punctuated by Wadsworth’s generous ornamentation) and Almain I (much beloved by classical guitarists as well as lutenists) served as an introduction to four of his songs and the final bracket for the night: “O Let us Howl” (written for Webster’s “The Dutchess of Malfi”), “Care-charming Sleep” (from Fletcher’s "Valentinian"), "Hark Hark the Lark" (Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline”) and “Come Heavy Sleep” (which Dowland also famously set).
An appreciative audience was rewarded with an encore, Johnson’s “Have you Seen the White Lilly Grow?” from Ben Jonson’s “The Devil is an Ass”, thus bringing to an end a warm and intimate evening of quality music-making.

 

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