Songs from the Labyrinth – Sting & Dowland

Walsingham; Flow my tears; The lowest trees have tops; The Most High and Mighty Christianus the Fourth, King of Denmark, His Galliard; Can she excuse my wrongs; Fine knacks for ladies; Fantasy; Come, heavy sleep; La Rossignol, Come again; Weep you no more, sad fountains; Clear or cloudy; In darkness let me dwell
Robert Johnson
Have you seen the bright lily grow?
Gordon Sumner
Fields of gold; Message in a bottle
Robert Johnson
Hell Hound on my Trail

Sting (vocals, archlute)
Edin Karamazov (lute, archlute)
Stile Antico

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 4 October, 2006
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London

When Sting (a singer-songwriter, Gordon Sumner, who has sold enough records to persuade people to call him ‘Sting’ without a second thought) announced earlier this year that his next release would be an album of Elizabethan lute songs, eyebrows were raised. To the rock critics, this was pretentious posturing by an artist with a fair track record in that line; meanwhile, classical commentators saw evidence of dumbing-down in the news that Deutsche Grammophon would release the album.

The incongruity of the endeavour was in many ways exemplified by this launch concert, which showed what happens when big-budget rock production values are applied to the normally austere world of early music, complete with expensive lighting, stage-side tables for the corporate sponsors, and roving film cameras. Against this was the argument that Dowland, in essence a singer-songwriter, could best be interpreted by a contemporary troubadour, and, at his best, Sting’s vocals have an intimacy that could work well with Dowland’s introspection.

In his introduction, he expressed his intention to sing the songs “in my own style, but respectfully”. Sting and lute-player Edin Karamazov were both amplified, and Sting¹s vocal style is essentially to croon Dowland’s lyrics. At moments, this worked exactly as it was supposed to; the opening bars of “In darkness let me dwell” had a smoky, chiaroscuro quality, and Sting¹s falsetto concluded Robert Johnson’s “Have you seen the bright lily grow?” in rapt stillness.

The more animated songs, such as “The lowest trees have tops” had an engaging conversational quality, more informal than the usual courtly approach. However, against this must be weighed Sting’s vocal peculiarities, particularly his tortured mid-Atlantic vowels and bizarrely elongated consonants. The opening of “Come, heavy sleep” was awry in its pitching, and his voice can go astray in the transition from his covered, piano sound to his ringing declamatory tone. And while Sting might be expected to bring out the meaning in the lyrics, his exploration of Dowland’s deep melancholy was muted and shallow, crossing the fine line from self-reflection into self-absorption.

Karamazov is a fine lute-player, accompanying the vocals sensitively with a lovely, delicate tone, and giving two short but virtuoso solos. The young chamber choir Stile Antico contributed animated backing vocals to two songs, “Can she excuse my wrongs” and “Fine knacks for ladies”. Sting’s own lute-playing was that of a decent amateur, and one hopes that he will continue to take lessons with his mentor.

Ultimately, Sting’s take on these songs showed that he is not yet fluent in Dowland’s complex and demanding harmonic vocabulary. This was illuminated by his contrasting ease when performing encores from his own back catalogue in a bizarre sort of upmarket ‘Unplugged’ session; when “Fields of gold” sounds better than “Flow my tears”, something is clearly wrong. (Sting also played ‘Hell Hound on my Trail’ by the other Robert Johnson, the Mississippi Bluesman and guitarist, 1911-1938, a musical joke that means I need never again wonder what Blues would sound like played on a lute!) There is no doubting Sting’s sincere dedication to Dowland, but the project itself has to be questioned, although if it brings this extraordinary repertoire to a wider audience then that can only be a good thing.

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