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Music Review

Uplift in John Dowland’s songs

“Semper Dowland, semper dolens” was the motto of the composer John Dowland: “Always Dowland, always sorrowful.”

The phrase was aptly quoted in the program note for Tuesday night’s Boston Early Music Festival all-Dowland recital, though audiences may have needed little reminding. Most of the lute songs selected by Emma Kirkby and Paul O’Dette for their Jordan Hall performance did little to conceal their underlying melancholy. “Flow my teares fall from your springs” begins one emblematic song. “Come, heavy sleep / The image of true death” begins another.

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Yet how then to account for the sense of consolation and even uplift delivered by these two hours of immersion in Dowland’s musical world? To start with only the most obvious, there is a compensatory beauty, gentle yet vast, distilled in this English composer’s art and dispensed into the slender frames of these songs. The tenor Peter Pears once described it as “a noble and radiant resignation.” He called also Dowland’s songs, rightly, “the first great art songs of modern times.”

The word modern here is key, though it may sound strange for a composer born in 1563. But the intimacy of his artistic voice and the sense of remove from the whirl of society around him place Dowland in line with poets much closer to our own day. He was also, not incidentally, an accomplished lute virtuoso, and the harmonically adventurous lute parts he wrote don’t so much embroider or support these songs as they do animate them from within.

Or so it seemed here with O’Dette’s thoughtful, quietly sparkling performance, which also included several Dowland compositions for solo lute. Kirkby, a distinguished English soprano and pioneer of the early music scene, retains a remarkable presence on stage, leaning in on Tuesday to deliver these songs not as antiquated missives from four centuries ago but as urgent and dramatic news, as fresh as this morning.

The selections were drawn from each of Dowland’s four song books, with works such as “Time Stands Still” and “In Darkness Let Me Dwell” benefiting from Kirkby’s purity of tone and directness of statement. Jordan Hall might have felt too large for music of this delicate scale, but instead Tuesday’s performance seemed to shrink the space to meet its own dimensions. The ear was drawn to gem-like details. Several songs were edged by a deep silence.

The next night brought the BEMF debut of La Risonanza, a protean Italian ensemble here consisting of just four instrumentalists including its director, Fabio Bonizzoni, who led from the harpsichord. The group’s mostly Handel program aimed, somewhat vaguely, to connect works composed in England with those from Handel’s earlier Italian sojourn.

The three secular cantatas on the program — “Mi palpita il cor” (”My heart beats”); “Alpestre mounte” (”Rugged mountains”); and “Notte placide e cheta” (”Calm and quiet night”) — made for the evening’s highlights, as sung with formidable technique and palpable expression by the fine soprano Roberta Invernizzi. The two interspersed Trio Sonatas (Op. 2, No. 1 and Op. 5, No. 4) put on display some capable but slightly bland string playing. BEMF’s concentration of stellar period-instrumentalists is a windfall for audiences, but with so many international performers seen in close succession, the bar is also set quite high.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.
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