A probing, intelligent approach to music of the distant past.
This is the third outing for John Potter’s group The Dowland Project on Manfred Eicher’s adventurous ECM label. While the personnel has changed slightly - Barry Guy (double bass) and Maya Homburger out, Milos Valent in – the basic ethos remains the same. There is none of Dowland’s music this time, but lots of other very early repertoire that is re-thought, re-worked and generally realized for a modern audience through experimentation and free improvisation. I know purists that balk slightly at this approach but, as many early music practitioners have pointed out, we really don’t know exactly how this music sounded, what forces it was written for or, indeed,Read more very much at all about its performance practice. John Potter’s eloquent liner-note covers similar territory, talking of ‘freeing the music of its historical context’ and reminding us that ‘musicians have always done this … done what they could with whatever material comes to hand’. What we do know is that in an age before the composer’s word became law on paper, the performer was king, and improvisation was vital to the music.
If, like me, you’re not an early music specialist or practitioner – or even if you are – there is a great deal of enjoyment and almost sensual pleasure in the results on this new disc. Much of the music is minor-mode, rather melancholy in feeling, and is possibly best sampled in short bursts rather than straight through. But there is atmosphere in spades here, and the performers bring their many and varied areas of expertise to bear to produce washes of magical textures. John Surman’s sax, recorder and bass clarinet waft in and out like an ethereal vocalise, truly complementing Potter’s highly experienced tenor, which is light of timbre and vibrato, enunciating beautifully the given texts, which are included in the booklet. Distinguished lutenist Stephen Stubbs’s baroque guitar and vihuela provide much of the harmonic texture of the realizations, and Milos Valent’s violin and viola provide yet another melodic strand to the whole, weaving mellifluously with the other lines. The Gregorian fragment ‘O beata infantia’ (tr. 8) is an excellent example.
I really knew nothing about repertoire of this period, and hate to use that dreaded word ‘crossover’, but ECM have become experts in this sort of probing, intelligent approach to music of the distant past – Officium became an international bestseller – and it strikes me as being as persuasive as any in bringing it to life for new listeners. It is much to be applauded, especially given the demonstration sound quality and superb packaging.