Monday 30 December 2013

On the 450th anniversary of his birth, songs by John Dowland feature strongly on a new Nimbus Alliance release of Elizabethan and Jacobean music

A new release from Nimbus Alliance , entitled Time Stands Still brings together music from that golden age of song, the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Featuring Simon Ponsford  (countertenor) and David Ponsford  (virginals and organ) it includes songs and instrumental works by William Byrd (1540-1623), Thomas Campion (c.1567-1620), John Dowland (1563-1626), Thomas Ford (d.1648), Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), Robert Johnson (c.1583-1633), Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) and Philip Rosseter (1567/8-1623).
NI 6255

Some purists may question the use of virginals and organ given that, normally, 16th century songs would have had a simple lute accompaniment. Indeed, John Dowland left nothing in keyboard form, yet the boundaries between lute repertoire and that of the domestic keyboard instruments by the 17th century were not particularly fixed with contemporaries making arrangements of other composer’s works.

The other issue that might very well worry some is that the organ used, a very fine instrument by the organ builders Goetze and Gwynn Ltd , in the Church of St John the Baptist, Marldon, Devon, based on two 18th century organs, uses Thomas Young’s tuning system from the late 18th/early 19th century. Given the paucity of completely original organs of the period, combined with 17th century contemporary attitudes concerning arrangements, it does not seem inappropriate to perform these works in such a form. With the remarkably fine results on this recording such potential issues do not present any problem for me.

William Byrd’s Prelude opens this disc with David Ponsford drawing some particularly fine sounds from the virginals, a copy of a Flemish instrument dating from 1645, made in 1979 by the frim of John Feldberg  and recently restored.

The songs of John Dowland appropriately feature strongly on this disc, given that he was one of the greatest composers of song in that era and that the 450th anniversary of his birth falls this year. Two of his songs feature next with Simon Ponsford showing much character in his voice in Can she excuse my wrongs? with steady pitch and just a little vibrato at certain parts of his range. He has such a well-controlled upper register and this performance is so full of dynamism.  He gives us a lovely Time stands still with long drawn pure tones and a sensitive accompaniment from David Ponsford (virginals).

Philip Rosseter is represented by his song Shall I come if I swim? which again highlights Simon Ponsford’s characterful presentation as well as some lovely phrasing. David Ponsford changes to the organ for Byrd’s wonderful Fantasia in C in a first class performance full of flow, with beautiful phrasing and excellent choice of registration.

David Ponsford continues with the organ, accompanying Simon Ponsford in Dowland’s I saw my lady weep with Ponsford handling Dowland’s tricky word setting so well before Dowland’s lively Wilt thou, unkind, thus reave me? Returning to the virginals, David Ponsford is supremely accomplished in Byrd’s Rowland, or Lord Willoughby’s Welcome home, beautifully done. Thomas Campion’s lovely hymn like Never weather beaten sail is a great success, finely sung with such purity of voice as, indeed, is the only unattributed piece in this recital, Miserere, my Maker, with Simon Ponsford’s wonderful high notes capturing the gently sorrowful nature of this piece.

Orlando Gibbons’ Fantasy in A minor receives a fine performance from David Ponsford at the organ, allowing the music to rise and flourish without over embellishing – a grand simplicity.

Robert Johnson is represented here by three songs Where the bee sucks, nicely done with varying rhythms, Full fathom five, a song that brings the best from Simon Ponsford with long pure lines in this, another beautifully simple setting and Come, heavy sleep where this countertenor shows his pure beauty of voice with a natural character that gives such a Jacobean period sound to his voice. Time does indeed stand still.

Perhaps Byrd’s best known instrumental piece The woods so wild is played by David Ponsford (virginals) with a lovely rhythmic bounce and wonderful articulation.

Dowland returns again with two more songs, In darkness let me dwell where David Ponsford sets the opening scene before Simon Ponsford enters in this well known, typically Elizabethan melancholic song. Here Simon Ponsford has power, purity, fine articulation and such natural feel for the words. Were every thought an eye showing a great flexibility.

Thomas Tomkins is represented by A sad pavane for these distracted times, written in 1649, only days after the execution of King Charles I. David Ponsford playing the virginals draws so much from his instrument, a range of textures that is remarkable for such a small instrument of limited compass. Thomas Ford is a composer that I am unfamiliar with, but his Since first I saw your face is an attractive song, full of life, particularly in this performance.

Dowland returns again with Flow my tears, perhaps the most famous of Dowland’s tunes that he also used in his instrumental work Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares and encapsulates so much of the fashionable Elizabethan melancholy. These two artists keep the music flowing ahead without dallying in a performance of directness and pathos. Dowland is in a happier mood with Fine knacks for ladies where Simon Ponsford shows the fun of this setting.

More fine playing from David Ponsford in Byrd’s Ut re mi fa sol la with such fine phrasing in this lovely little piece.

Dowland returns for the two final pieces on this disc, Awake, sweet love, with some fine singing from Simon Ponsford in this fast flowing piece, nicely phrased and Now, O now I needs must part, a suitable work to end this recital with Dowland returning to his melancholy mood and both artists pacing this just right with fine singing and sensitive accompaniment.

These artists are given a lovely recording from the Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Marldon, Devon and there are informative booklet notes by David Ponsford with full English texts.

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