Sunday 17 January 2016

A recent release from ECM New Series brings together lute songs ranging from the 16th century to contemporary with remarkable success

ECM New Series have recently released a recording that attempts to bridge the gap between art song and pop song. This is not just another attempt at crossover but a genuine wish to bring together examples of early music with modern song on the basis that at one time a song was just a song, not an art song or pop song.

Such modern composers as John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin fame) , Sting  and Genesis-keyboardist Tony Banks  were commissioned to write new lute songs. Entitled Amores Pasados this new disc features Ex-Hilliard Ensemble tenor, John Potter (voice) , Anna Maria Friman (voice and Hardanger fiddle)  and lutenists,  Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman

ECM New Series
2441 4811555
John Potter remarks in his booklet notes that ‘asking a rock music composer to set existing poetry within a genre we knew well meant that we singers wouldn’t need to pretend to be pop singers – we were still ‘interpreting’ a text in a way that we’re familiar with.’

John Paul Jones (b. 1946), in his group of three songs, Amores Pasados sets texts from the three great ages of Spanish literature. Al son de los arroyuelos takes a text by the Spanish playwright, poet and novelist Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio (1562-1613) and certainly avoids the distinction between art song and popular song. There is a definite Iberian lilt to the song with the voices of John Potter and Anna Maria Friman keeping an ideal balance between purity and naturalness, ably accompanied by the lutes of Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman.

A long held fiddle note with lute gently strumming a chord opens No dormía before Anna Maria Friman, then John Potter, introduce the text by Spanish post-romanticist poet and writer Gustavo Adolfo Claudio Domínguez Bastida, better known as Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-1870). A wonderful atmosphere is created, at times having the nature of an ecclesiastical chant, at others a lament. These singers bring much feeling to the text before it expands texturally. Later the theme is played by the lute over a held fiddle note before the singers return and the voices rise up, concluding with brief spoken text from Potter.

We are led straight into So ell encina where the two lutes of Abramovich and Heringman lead forward. Potter takes the text, a setting of a 15th c. anonymous text, in this faster, more buoyant song before Friman enters to share text. There is a gently flowing, rhythmic lilt with some fine, fluent playing from the two lutenists, well harmonised at the coda.

Peter Warlock’s (1884-1930) setting of Sleep by John Fletcher (1579-1625) fits perfectly after the John Paul Jones songs. John Potter brings a naturalness allied to a traditional lute song style with fine lute accompaniment.

Two Thomas Campion (1567-1620) songs follow; first Follow thy fair sun which brings the voice of Anna Maria Friman accompanied by the two lutes, affectingly sung with such a musical voice, unstrained and natural. Friman giving a beautifully phrased and shaped performance of Campion’s Oft have I sighed bringing the best of both worlds, purity, great feeling yet an unstrained natural voice. There is some exquisite accompaniment from the two lutenists.

The two lutenists bring a finely blended In nomine I by the 16th c. Mr Picforth (fl 1580's) of whom little is known.  It is well paced by these fine musicians who dovetail the musical lines beautifully.

It is John Potter that brings Thomas Campion’s: The cypress curtain of the night. He has a slight catch in his voice that adds to the expression and emotion of this text. He is finely accompanied by the two lutenists with all bringing a real Elizabethan melancholy.

Tony Banks (b. 1950) has taken Campion’s own poem, Follow thy fair sun that he set himself, as the text for his own song. A single lute opens, soon joined by the second before John Potter enters. Again this song is not the slightest out of place. It is neither pastiche nor modern in feel. A lute song takes its place perfectly here, full of feeling.

E. J. Moeran’s (1894-1950) A. E. Housman setting of Oh Fair enough are sky and plain takes on a different feel in this performance for male singer and two lutes. It is entirely convincingly thought the shifts in key come as quite a surprise in this arrangement.  

Tony Banks’ second Thomas Campion setting, The cypress curtain of the night is equally impressive. John Potter and the two lutenists bring much sensitivity and feeling. Potter brings an affectingly emotional and natural quality.

Ariel Abramovich & Jacob Heringman provide another lute piece by Picforth, In nomine II in another fine performance with a natural, gentle flow.

This disc concludes with Sting’s (b.1951) Bury me deep in the greenwood. Sting has become well known in recent times for his interest in singing lute songs. He wrote this one for a Robin Hood film and incorporates his own lyrics. It has a particularly fine lute opening before John Potter enters, rising to moments of intense feeling. This is an impressive song, sung with much feeling and finely accompanied.

This project works remarkably well, bringing together a collection of songs that sit well alongside each other. Surprisingly it is the Moeran setting that perhaps is the only one that doesn’t quite fit as well here. 

John Potter in his useful booklet notes mentions that the aim was to try to make the recording as live as possible, any glitches providing a human touch. It is that natural, human element that shines through here. 

There are no texts which is a pity with the first three songs sung in Spanish. The recording, though close, is excellent. 

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