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Music Review: Monika Mauch & Nigel North – A Musical Banquet

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It is very nearly 400 years since A Musical Banquet was published by Robert Dowland. It proved to be a unique collection of lute pieces gathered together from England, Italy, Spain, and France. The book was the first publication of its kind that contained music in four different languages.

Now A Musical Banquet is released as the latest in the ongoing ECM New Series (catalogue number 1938). The series has made available several important releases from this period. This album is a valuable addition to the catalogue.

Robert Dowland (1586-1641) was the son of John Dowland (1563-1626), the greatest lutenist of his time. In the year of the anthology’s publication John Dowland, who was also a renowned composer, returned to England having left his Court position in Denmark.
His musical finesse had taken him across Europe. He gathered the music of each city, and to them he added several of his own compositions. He had already published several important works which set the style and standard for lute ayres often played at court or in the homes of rich amateur musicians. Perhaps his most noted work up until this point was Lachrimae written in 1604, an instrumental collection for five viols and lute.

His son Robert was only nineteen when the book was published under his name. He too was an accomplished lutenist. We can assume that it was largely the influence of his well travelled father that brought the project to fruition. Despite being credited to Robert the work was more likely a collaboration between the two.

A Musical Banquet also included compositions by John Dowland himself. It embraced music from France’s Guedron, and also Italy, with pieces written by Giulio Caccini. Into this he added songs he had heard whilst in Spain, whose writers are largely unknown.

The pieces that make the collection are a wonderful blend of poetry and music. Rich in charm and atmosphere, they were greatly inspired by the Italian madrigals of composers such as Luca Marenzio.

The set is performed by German Soprano Monika Mauch. Monika made her debut for the ECM label on the album Morimur (Bach) back in 2001. She has studied and performed early music extensively in Paris, Geneva, Munich, Basel, and Cologne.

She accompanies one of the world’s most renowned lutenists, English born Nigel North. His previous works include complete cycles of lute music by both Bach and John Dowland. The two artists met in Innsbruck in 2002 and they agreed to work together. They regularly performed music from A Musical Banquet during their subsequent concerts.

This attractively presented set comes complete with an informative twenty-four page booklet, by Nigel North, and a reproduction of each songs lyric in their native language.

The set is made all the more attractive for the inclusion of period text in its heading which appears as: 'A Musicall Banquet, furnished with varieties of delicious Ayres, collected out of the best Authors in English, French, Spanish, and Italian, by Robert Dowland.' In the expansive album notes Robert’s original description is reproduced, ‘like a careful confectionery, as neere as might be, I have fitted my Banquet for all tastes’.

The music contained within is disarmingly beautiful. The album opens with the French Air “Passava Amor Su Arco Desarmado”, (translated as ‘love walked by unarmed’) which originated from Paris, circa 1608. Next to appear is the first of three exquisite John Dowland compositions, an English version of the 1588 Italian original by Cesare Rinaldi, “Lady, If You So Spite Me”. It contains more than a passing eroticism for its time within the text.

A Musical Banquet includes ten English, four Italian, three Spanish, and one lute solo written by John Dowland. Whilst there were no compositions directly attributed to son Robert, his role remained significant as editor, compiler, and publisher.

In amongst the work are three extracts from Philip Sidney’s Astrophil And Stella. These pieces were the result of Sidney’s infatuation with Penelope Devereux, who by marriage became Lady Rich therefore condemning his love to remain forever unfulfilled.

The work also has importance as a historical document of the time. For example one of John Dowlands’ compositions “Far From Triumphing Court” sets text written by Sir Henry Lee, who died that same year, to his arrangement. During the piece Sir Henry recounts earlier times spent in the service of Queen Elizabeth, and of a visit from the new Queen Anne, wife of King James I.

Once again ECM have released a fascinating work, one that radiates historical setting, whilst delighting the listener both musically, and poetically. This is most definitely the Musical Banquet that it professed to be.

For more information on Monika Mauch or Nigel North please visit their official websites.

To explore the ECM New Series please visit their catalogue on their website.

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