In the hands of Nigel North, the Renaissance lute speaks with a voice of calm beauty, its sighs and growls at first as charming as a kitten’s. But as a program he presented recently proved, once you enter the world of the lute and its unique music, once you cut yourself loose from the tintinnabulation that now forms the background of our musical lives, you will discover emotional rewards so deep and deeply transcendent that you’ll wonder why it is that music can’t always be so affecting.
North’s recital took place June 22, 2014, at the Harkness Chapel at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and focused on Italian music from the early 16th century. The works were by three composers: Joan Ambrosio Dalza, Albert de Rippe, and, especially, Francesco da Milano. It was the opening concert of a week-long get-together put together by the Lute Society of America and drawing participants from around the world who participate in classes and lessons and enjoy a roster of evening concerts like this one.
Although this one would be hard to top. North is renowned as one of the finest players of this difficult instrument. Technical mastery is only one of his skills; even more impressive is the way he makes sense of this rarefied music. Although it can be argued that in this instance he was preaching to the choir, I suspect that any responsible audience would be similarly moved, however far away their ears are typically tuned.
Julian Bream proved to be an essential exponent of the lute when he discovered its glories in the 1950s. Although current traditionalists may take exception to the sound and style of his playing (and his instrument), his own great popularity made the lute far more popular, and the music he championed, which included much by John Dowland and Francesco da Milano, among many others, encouraged others to pursue these tunes as well.
North’s performing style is reminiscent of Bream’s. He seems shy and self-effacing. He doesn’t speak much during a performance, but when he does, it’s with substance and wit. And as he lightly glides the strings to check his tuning, then dips his head and launches into a ricercar, the seeming stillness of the music draws you in and envelops you.
There wasn’t much variety to any aspect of the program. The works themselves, celebrating brief chord progressions and bursts of counterpoint, would seem indistinguishable from one another to an unmindful listener – but so, with a similar mental distance, would the music of Benny Goodman or Buddy Guy.
The instrument itself has little dynamic range. The strings don’t twang like those on a guitar. North played a six-course lute built in 2010, small enough that if it were a child, it would have to sit in a rear-facing car seat. But his right hand, the one doing the fingerpicking, traveled in balletic arcs on and around his lute’s decorative resonating hole, creating a different timbre at each destination.
His other interpretive tools were uses of tempo and ornamentation. The challenge with tempo is to inflict a meaningful variety upon the music’s phrases without losing the pulse. It’s easy to put on the brakes here and there in order to proclaim one’s artistry – this is the Furtwangler approach, which has its misguided adherents – but too much of it obscures a composer’s intent. North’s genius shows in his ability to keep such variety supple, drawing a deep breath here and there, so to speak, when about to crest the peak of another challenging variation.
Ornamentation is the jazz vocabulary of early music, a technique players were expected to know and apply. It can be as simple as the quick trip to and from an adjacent note, or a more sinewy turn of a musical phrase. The composers of Francesco’s era were performers, often bravura improvisers. What they wrote down – if they wrote anything at all – might consist of no more than a road map along which the player was expected to make those charming swerves. In North’s hands, each piece of filigree made sense.
The five works by Dalza that opened the program set an effective stage for what would follow. He left little sheet music, but much of what’s there he set into groups; thus, the opening prelude, tastar de corde, is intended to be followed by ricecar dietro, and the subsequent pavana alla ferrarese is followed by a saltarello and piva, each a faster dance.
For the quartet of Francesco’s fantasias and ricercars that followed, North selected works in the key of F. And so throughout the program, the effective first-half sequence including a wonderfully colorful performance of Albert de Rippe’s setting of “O Passi sparsi,” after a Petrarch text, and culminating in the same composer’s “Fantasie I,” a lengthy, technically challenging work that must have been the Eroica Symphony of its day.
The two Spanish-influenced works by Dalza that opened the second half anticipated by a century the characteristics that would inform the guitar writing of Gaspar Sanz. Then it was back to Italy. Francesco is revered for his innovative fantasias and ricercars – he was nicknamed “Il Divino” – three more of which followed, but it became clear that Albert offered close competition: the two fantasies that concluded his contributions to the evening worked a contrapuntal magic that seemed emotionally out of proportion to the delicacy of the pieces.
But the program ended, appropriately, with two of Francesco’s fantasias, the last of which, subtitled “la piu bella e divina,” featured a scampering of two-note sequences that sounded for all the world as if they were coming from two different performers, building to what’s probably as big a finish as the lute allows. North encored, gently, with Claudin de Sermisy’s “Tant que vivray.”
There’s no better audience for such a concert than lute players and enthusiasts. They were quieter than any other group I’ve ever shared a hall with. The music asks that you meet it more than halfway, and that level of active listening was well rewarded.