Of all the things that could have emerged from last year’s Dowland anniversary, perhaps for many the most devoutly to be wished would have been a song recital disc from the English countertenor of the moment. Well, here it is, with 16 songs gathered under the title ‘The Art of Melancholy’—although, this being Dowland, that encompasses most of the old favourites, and as Roger Savage’s excellent booklet-note makes clear, such is the subtle variety of music and words in Dowland’s melancholy world that ‘semper dolens’ does not have to mean ‘semper in idem’.
The main strength of Iestyn Davies’s singing lies in its straightforward lyrical beauty, certainly a sound fit for Dowland’s classic melodic grace. When his songs are performed as purely musically as this, the battle is already half-won, and indeed Davies seems to see no need for overdeliberate interpretation. His diction is clear (impressively quick in ‘Can she excuse?’) but his phrases are touched by naturalness and a rejection of the kind of interpretational point-making that, for instance, has led many others to introduce a tiny hiatus after the third note of ‘Time stands still’. Instead, Davies can reach the heart of the matter through leisurely lingering in ‘Flow my tears’, an aching swell on the penultimate note of the ever-superb ‘In darkness let me dwell’, a brief burst of ornamentation or a momentary flowering of vibrato when a phrase, note or vowel demands it. Melancholy, it seems, does not have to have downright angst waiting round the corner.
Davies’s accompanist is Thomas Dunford, a lutenist still in his twenties but already making people notice him with his strongly projected resonant tone, wide range of touch and dynamic, and effortlessly attentive musicianship. His five solos are a strong plus; ‘Lachrimae’ and ‘Fortune my foe’ are both seriously slow and free. This is Dowland to treasure.