The Renaissance songwriter and lutenist John Dowland was possibly the first composer to make an art form out of misery. His oeuvre so exemplified the Elizabethan cult of melancholy that he adopted the motto “semper Dowland, semper dolens” (“Always Dowland, always doleful”). This 450th anniversary tribute, featuring the Fretwork viol consort, tenor Ian Bostridge and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny, interleaved Dowland’s songs with his celebrated Lachrimae, a suite of stately variations in which Dowland charted seven stages of despair.
Though sombre and introspective, Fretwork and Kenny’s performance was cathartic rather than depressing, with the ensemble continually making subtle adjustments to their tone.A vibrato-less Lachrimae Coactae (Forced Tears) felt arid and exposed, though the more fulsome Lachrimae Verae (True Tears) gave a sense of floodgates about to open.
Although recent Dowland interpreters have included Elvis Costello andSting, the composer’s vocal works have generally become the property of countertenors. Bostridge brought a range of colour to the songs that even the finest falsettists struggle to match; his tone and articulation was bright and limpid for Can She Excuse My Wrongs?, while he scraped along the bottom of his register to great effect for the harrowing In Darkness Let Me Dwell.
Yet his performance was also subject to some curious bouts of absent-mindedness. Bostridge confused the beginning of If My Complaints with If Floods of Tears, and came out for the encore without the correct piece of music, though he extemporised brilliantly with an impromptu version of the Earl of Essex’s lute song from Britten’s Gloriana. To cap it all, he didn’t have a chair, which left him looking at a loss during the instrumental pieces, though his hangdog demeanour quite suited to the occasion: semper dolens, semper Bostridge.