Orpheus Anglorum

Lute music by John Johnson and Anthony Holborne
Yavor Genov lute
Brilliant Classics 95551

John Johnson (c. 1545-1594) was lutenist to Queen Elizabeth I, (a post coveted but never gained by John Dowland,) and he composed some very fine music, which was still being played long after his death. The first track of the CD is Johnson’s Flatt Pavan, and judging by the numerous surviving sources, it was one of Johnson’s most popular pieces. Yavor Genov has chosen the version from the Euing lute book. Where possible, it is important to stick to one source rather than conflate sources to create something which never existed, yet one must distinguish between acceptable variants and unacceptable errors. Genov reproduces what is clearly an error in bar 6 of the manuscript – a nominal C major chord (not very Flatt) instead of C minor. He starts the piece slowly with minim = 38, but reaches minim = 42 by the end of the first section. There is no copy of the Flatt Galliard  in the Euing manuscript, so Genov uses the version in Dd.2.11. He opts for a slow speed at minim = 42, which really should be a bit quicker as a contrast to the Pavan.

For Johnson’s Delight Pavan and Galliard  Genov turns to the Board lute book, c. 1620. A feature of this late source is the extensive use of ornaments, yet Genov misses most of them out. For example, the first section has 24 ornaments of which Genov plays two. Unlike other sources, the Board manuscript has two six-note chords in bars 2 and 4 of the third section. They are made special, because they have to be spread, since a player does not have six fingers on his right hand. Genov reduces them both to four-note chords, which are not spread, and not special. Most lute music of this period has final bars which involve a broken chord of some kind to sustain the sound. Genov is understandably keen to get quieter through the bar to give the music shape, but he often overdoes it, so that the last note of the bar is scarcely audible. At its most extreme the last note of the second section of the Delight Galliard  vanishes altogether both times through.

Johnson’s music has much variety; it has attractive melodies and exciting and sometimes unusual divisions. If we put academic considerations to one side, Genov plays the music quite well. Gathering of Peascods  from the Board lute book may be short of ornaments, but Genov instils brightness and jollity. He gives a nicely paced performance of Johnson’s variations on Carman’s Whistle, enlivened with some swift semiquaver divisions, and he produces an upbeat interpretation of Johnson’s Passing measures Pavan, with its quirky broken chords over repeated minim bass notes.

The second half of the CD is devoted to music by Johnson’s contemporary, Anthony Holborne (c. 1545-1602), beginning with the Pavan  from 17v of Lbl Add 31392. Genov sustains it well, albeit with rather a lot of rolled chords. However, there seems to be something wrong with the recording halfway through bar 6, where it suddenly skips straight to bar 7 omitting half a bar. Halfway through bar 22, something is not quite right either, which sounds more like badly patched takes rather than bad playing – two extra notes are clumsily inserted, which match the divisions for the repeat in bar 30. The next track, The New Year’s Gift, also suffers from something similar – the first two sections are played without repeats, but the third section has a repeat starting halfway through the second section.

The last two tracks, Muy Linda  and As it fell on a holiday, are played at breakneck speed. Muy Linda  races on apace, so that there is no way of telling where one section ends and the next begins. The unfortunate exception is when Genov goes back for the repeat of the third section. The last bar has a final flourish involving four semiquavers, which Genov cannot possibly play at the speed he is going. He slows down, as if bringing the piece to an end, to be able to play them at half speed; he then goes back for the repeat a tempo, sounding as if he had forgotten he had a repeat still to play. To avoid all this, he could have re-written the final bar for the first time around, as he does with a similar final bar in As it fell on a holiday, and saved those semiquavers up for a rallentando only at the very end. Alternatively he could have played the piece slower.

Stewart McCoy

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