October 1, 2005
On the frontispiece of many an early edition of Dowland’s works you can find Musica seated on a cloud, lute in hand, while Mercury gestures towards her from a fluffy promontory. It’s a nice image, and while I might be inviting a hail of feminist vituperation, there’s no question that the softly swelling curves of the lute reinforce its Renaissance reputation as the Queen of Instruments to the Kingly organ.
Hopkinson Smith’s latest collection, ‘A Dream’, takes this idea a step further by inviting the listener ‘…to penetrate the world of the inner senses that is the domain of the lute.’ An elegantly constructed programme (built around groups of Hilliard-like portraits and melancholy flights of fancy) tropes sonnet-like at the wonderful Farwell, a magical, troubling fantasy that treats its chromatically rising theme contrapuntally while somehow tying all the preceding emotional strands in the programme together. This propels the listener lachrymoneously (Smith’s word, not mine) into an even darker dwelling-place than was expected. In fact, this is the genius of the disc, and what makes it a genuinely moving experience.
Smith’s playing, too, is elegant rather than overtly virtuosic, although he has technique to burn, as anyone who’s familiar with his numerous recordings will tell you. He prefers a more suggestive, diffuse approach to Dowland’s music (compared with, say, Paul O’Dette). As a result, the numerous diminutions serve to intensify the character of each piece in a profound and subtle way – listen to the Melancholy Galliard or The Earl of Essex his Galliard, the latter based on Dowland’s song Can she excuse my wrongs. Evidently not, given the Earl’s fate.