Music from Shakespeares England by Robert Johnson and John Dowland
Carolyn Sampson (soprano) &
Matthew Wadsworth (lute)
Monday, January 10, 2005 Wigmore Hall, London
Reviewed by William Yeoman
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 Fletchers play The Captain; one with words by that most prolific of poets, Anon. If there had been any gloom left in the afterglow of Wadsworths wonderful solo work, it would have been fairly pierced by Sampsons clear, lovely soprano: every word audible, every phrase lovingly shaped and every tone weighted against the lutes gentle chords. Woods, Rocks and Mountains was particularly effective, with Wadsworths improvised accompaniment (Johnsons 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: Johnsons 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 Wadsworths 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 Dowlands 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, Sampsons vocal line was limpid and flexible while never sacrificing intelligibility of the text. Wadsworths playing of Dowlands 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 Wadsworths 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 Websters The Dutchess of Malfi), Care-charming Sleep (from Fletchers "Valentinian"), "Hark Hark the Lark" (Shakespeares Cymbeline) and Come Heavy Sleep (which Dowland also famously set).
An appreciative audience was rewarded with an encore, Johnsons Have you Seen the White Lilly Grow? from Ben Jonsons The Devil is an Ass, thus bringing to an end a warm and intimate evening of quality music-making.