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GRAMOPHONE (January / 2017)
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Reviewer: Alexandra Coghlan

John Dowland’s songs have been a touchstone in the career of soprano Emma Kirkby, revisited at every stage of her career and vocal development, each time with fresh perspective. The early recordings with Anthony Rooley and the Consort of Musicke for L’Oiseau-Lyre – dew-fresh and sweetly simple – gave way to the mature, deeply felt delivery of ‘Time Stands Still’ (Hyperion, 8/86) and ‘Honey From the Hive’ (BIS, 4/06). Now, at nearing 70, she returns once more to these works in a recording that pairs Dowland’s songs with his Lachrimae – the seven extraordinary pavans for viol consort and lute, each a variation on Dowland’s own ‘Flow my tears’ pavan.  

‘Semper Dowland, semper dolens’, punned the composer, and melancholy is certainly pervasive in a collection that interweaves the tear-strewn pavans with songs of loss, grief and mourning. Only the instrumental dances – a snappy Volta, a matter-of-fact Almand, a graceful Paduan – offer the release of tension that Anyone familiar with Fretwork’s recording of the Lachrimae or even Phantasm’s smoother offering will find the Chelys Consort of Viols in a very different sonic world. Their soft blend, coupled with the weight and depth of sound, is a luxury instrument, capable of embracing the emotional extremes of Dowland’s music without strain. But in gaining this amplitude they lose that grit and husk in the sound that gives a viol consort its personality – a personality so ideally suited to music whose palette is drawn from infinite shades of grey.  

If you’re looking for the most beautiful recording of the Lachrimae, this is unquestionably it. Whether it’s the best is very much a matter of taste. As to Kirkby, the glassy purity of her youth has now become a pleasingly smudged and pitted voice of experience, wayward at the top and occasionally snatched at the bottom. It’s a texture that works effectively with these tormented texts, but makes an odd deathbedfellow for Chelys’s plush musical upholstery.

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