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consort Sit Fast (named after a piece by Christopher Tye) have shown a liking
for cycles in their two recordings to date – the complete Purcell Fantazias and
Bach’s The Art of Fugue (both on Eloquentia). Now here they are with
Dowland’s seven incrementally altered versions of the pavan known in its song
version as ‘Flow my tears’, published in 1604 and thus perhaps the earliest of
all great instrumental cycles. What makes it so great is the way Dowland uses
the slowest, most substantial and most emotive dance form of his time to explore
many subtle degrees of melancholy, a sentiment which Sit Fast choose to mine in
markedly slow tempos. They thus differ from the recent Gramophone
Awardwinning recording by Phantasm, which is generally quicker by about a third.
Phantasm focus on the expressive power of Dowland’s shifting harmonies and keep
the music’s dance pace in mind, but Sit Fast appear more interested in
transparency and the lingering long line, delivered in tones more delicate,
silvery and intimate than Phantasm’s firmly projected sound. If there is a risk
in Sit Fast’s drawn-out manner, it is that the cycle can come across as
uneventful. The short gaps between tracks don’t help, undermining the rhythm of
the cycle by not quite allowing enough time for reflection on the pavan just
gone and anticipation of the next. But there are beauties here nonetheless.
Whereas Phantasm followed the seven pavans with the 14 other dances from
Dowland’s original publication, Sit Fast have coupled them with George
Benjamin’s setting of Yeats’s poem ‘Upon Silence’. The work is as exquisite as
you would expect from its composer – inward, intimate and brilliantly sensitive
to the subtle tensions between motion and stillness. The work was originally
composed for Fretwork and recorded by them with Susan Bickley; Sit Fast’s
reading with Sarah Breton is more delicate and texturally lucid, if less
strongly shaped and coloured.
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