07 March 2014

CD REVIEW: TIME STANDS STILL – Elizabethan & Jacobean Songs & Keyboard Music (S. Ponsford, D. Ponsford; Nimbus Records NI 6255)

TIME STANDS STILL - Elizabethan & Jacobean Songs & Keyboard Music (Nimbus Records NI 6255)

WILLIAM BYRD (1540 – 1623), THOMAS CAMPION (circa 1567 – 1620), JOHN DOWLAND (1563 – 1626), THOMAS FORD (circa 1580 – 1648), ORLANDO GIBBONS (1583 – 1625), ROBERT JOHNSON (circa 1583 – 1633), PHILIP ROSSETER (1567 or 1568 – 1623), and THOMAS TOMKINS (1572 – 1656): Time Stands Still – Elizabethan and Jacobean Songs and Keyboard MusicSimon Ponsford, countertenor; David Ponsford, virginals and organ [Recorded at the Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Marldon, Devon, UK, 9 – 11 April 2013; Nimbus Records NI 6255; 1CD, 75:35; Available from Amazon, Nimbus/Wyastone, iTunes, and major music retailers]

​Just as it is human nature to be irresistibly enticed by those images from which one's eyes ought to be averted, there is something undeniably inviting about the intimate melancholy of the vocal music of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Perhaps it is a gratifyingly intrusive sense of observing raw emotions that later generations preferred to masque with outward shows of politeness and propriety, or perhaps it is merely a perverse pleasure derived from contemplation of the foibles of societies associated in 21st-Century minds with romanticized chivalry. In this era of impersonal technology, it must seem remarkable to many listeners that, four centuries ago, dandies at the court of Elizabeth I took up their lutes or viols or sat before their virginals and poured out their frustrations with love in song; and not in haphazard, hastily-devised roundelays of wounded pride but in music that, though deeply private, managed to preserve in sound the Zeitgeist of an age. Whether disappointed by love or pensive in faith, the music of John Dowland and the best of his contemporaries never sounds antiquated. In the hands of musicians responsive to its undiluted emotional sincerity, this music can cut across the centuries with an edge as sharp as a wintry horizon, uniting the twilight of one culture with the dawn of another. Plunging deep into the fount of their musical heritage, rising countertenor Simon Ponsford, here making his début on disc as a solo artist, and renowned keyboardist David Ponsford luxuriate in the intoxicating brew of intrigue, passion, and repose that flows from Time Stands Still.

Playing the splendid 1990 organ in the west gallery of the 15th-Century Parish Church of St John the Baptist in Marldon, Devon, tuned in accordance with Young’s system of 1800 to a = 440 Hz, and a 1979 John Feldberg replica of a 1645 Flemish virginals turned to a = 392 Hz, David Ponsford delivers wonderful performances of a number of pieces that richly deserve greater attention from 21st-Century listeners. Beginning with an energetic account of a brief Prelude by William Byrd, Dr. Ponsford exploits every tonal possibility of the muselar at his disposal, an instrument with a surprisingly robust timbre. Byrd’s ‘Rowland, or Lord Willoughby’s Welcome home’—a charming piece, charmingly played—and ‘The woods so wild,’ familiar to the attentive listener from the accompaniment of John Dowland’s ‘Can she excuse my wrongs,’ draw from Dr. Ponsford performances that, while faultlessly stylish, simmer with sensuality, the melodic lines caressed with with songlike empathy. The finest of the solo pieces played on the muselar is Thomas Tomkin’s ‘A sad pavan for these distracted times,’ a piece contemporaneous with the execution of the deposed Charles I: the melancholy that Dr. Ponsford imparts in his playing without indulging in bleary sentimentality is striking. Finer still is his playing of the pieces allotted to the organ. Byrd’s Fantasia in C is vigorously done, and his ‘Ut re mi fa sol la’—in which ‘The woods so wild’ recurs in counterpoint in two of the hexachord piece’s variations—benefits enormously from the clarity with which Dr. Ponsford enunciates subjects and countersubjects. One of the greatest masterpieces of 17th-Century English instrumental music and arguably the single best piece on the disc, Orlando Gibbons’s Fantasy in A minor is a marvel of contrapuntal invention. Shaped by an intuitive grasp of the interplay among voices, Dr. Ponsford’s playing of the Fantasy is, in short, worthy of the music.

The songs performed by Mr. Ponsford on Time Stands Still are most often heard with lute accompaniment, but the responsiveness of Dr. Ponsford’s playing renders these gems of concentrated expression even more communicative of urbane feelings. Accompanied by the virginals, Philip Rosseter’s ‘Shall I come if I swim’ is a joy, and the light approach adopted by Mr. Ponsford evokes the sly humor of the song. Robert Johnson’s ‘Where the bee sucks’ and ‘Full fathom five,’ settings of texts from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, are nicely differentiated by the virginals accompaniment of the first and the organ in the second, which is an intelligent interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most famous passages. Mr. Ponsford sings both numbers affectionately, but the depth of emotion that he emits in Johnson’s stately ‘Come, heavy sleep’ is genuinely moving. The gracefulness of Mr. Ponsford’s singing highlights the furtive quality of the anonymous ‘Miserere, my maker,’ lending the song an air of legitimate desire for absolution. Thomas Campion’s ‘Never weather-beaten sail,’ in its ethos a precursor of the simile arias that flourished in Italian Baroque opera, inspires Mr. Ponsford to a similarly eloquent performance. Thomas Ford’s ‘Since first I saw your face’ is a sublime paean to love in the vein of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 [‘Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds / Or bends with the remover to remove’], and the rapt devotion with which Mr. Ponsford sings it leaves no doubt of the candor of the poet’s declaration that ‘O there where e’er I go, I leave my heart behind me.’

It is astonishing to consider that an artist as linked from the stance of history to late Elizabethan and Jacobean England as John Dowland was for so many years of his professional career active abroad and, until his appointment as a lutenist at the court of James I—a position which ranked him beneath the least of those in service to the Royal Household—in 1612, held no acknowledged position with royal patronage in Britain. Virtually all of the compositions for which Dowland is remembered date from before his attachment to the Jacobean court, but his music is as inextricably associated with the courts of Elizabeth I and James I as is Wagner’s with the court of Ludwig II of Bavaria. For Time Stands Still, Mr. Ponsford selected ten of Dowland’s most familiar songs, but familiarity deprives his performances of none of the advantages of fresh perspectives. In ‘Can she excuse my wrongs,’ there are moments in which Mr. Ponsford does not sound completely comfortable with Dowland’s intervals, but his singing of ‘Time stands still’ wants for nothing, the timbre of precisely the right weight and color for the vocal line and the tone hauntingly beautiful. Accompanied by organ, ‘I saw my lady weep’ and ‘Wilt thou, unkind, thus reave me’ are particularly soulful, and Mr. Ponsford’s sonorous singing penetrates the core of the songs’ desolation without admitting undue heaviness. The other songs accompanied by organ—‘Were every thought an eye,’ the ubiquitous ‘Fine knacks for ladies,’ and ‘Awake, sweet love’—are voiced with subtlety and unhurried elegance. Mr. Ponsford seeks the catalysts of the arcane outpourings of ‘Flow my tears’ and ‘Now, O now I needs must part’ in the songs themselves rather than devising externalized subtexts, and the straightforwardness of his singing allows the poetic attitudes of the texts to be carried on the shoulders of the distinguished melodies. Mr. Ponsford reaches the pinnacle of his achievements on this disc in ‘In darkness let me dwell,’ in which his ethereal tone—not so much the voice of a broken artist as of threatened Art itself—illuminates the melody with an autumnal radiance. Uttered with the simplicity of a soul that can perceive no other resolution, the statements of ‘O let me living, living die’ pass from the hearts of the composer and singer into that of the listener.

There are moments in his singing on Time Stands Still in which Simon Ponsford’s best intentions are betrayed by his youth, but there are far more moments in which his technical pluck and affinity for the decorous, slightly aloof atmosphere of this music belie his youth. Complemented by performances of a carefully-considered assortment of keyboard works and the inspiritingly collaborative accompaniment of David Ponsford, a new artist makes of old music a winningly euphonious introduction to what will hopefully be a long, fulfilling career before the studio microphones.