The New York Times
May 1, 2005
Before it was supplanted by the keyboard and the violin early in the 17th century, the lute was the touring virtuoso's instrument of choice, and the English composer John Dowland was probably its greatest player. Contemporary accounts suggest as much, as does the varied body of lute music he left behind, most of it vastly more colorful and inventive than that of his contemporaries anywhere in Europe. His Fantasies - essentially, written-down improvisations - are richly contrapuntal and full of captivating harmonic twists.
Because he was a perpetual sad sack, and nursed well-documented grievances about everything from the piracy of his music to his inability to win a position at the English court during his prime, pieces like "Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens" and "Farewell" are suffused with a delicious current of melancholy. On the other hand, he composed bright, sprightly galliards, among them dazzling ones dedicated to King Christian IV of Denmark, who gave him a job, and Queen Elizabeth, who didn't.
And the lyrical gift that made Dowland the supreme song composer of his day transferred easily to the lute. The "Frogg Galliard" and "Lachrimae Pavin," among others here, are involved variations on song themes.
Hopkinson Smith's selection of 20 works presents a reasonably comprehensive portrait of Dowland, and the performances say a lot about Mr. Smith as well. He proceeds from the historically apt notion that the scores were memoirs of Dowland's improvisations, not inviolable writ. His wonderfully personalized accounts draw freely on variant editions of familiar works, and he ornaments amply and adventurously, using everything from crisply articulated trills to more expansive melodic figures and even, in "Lady Hunsdon's Allmande," a hint of portamento.
Dowland's complete lute music fits on five CD's. There's no reason for Mr. Smith to stop here.