This collection of post-Elizabethan melancholy risks being overly ambitious, for it tries to pursue two innovative goals. First, it mixes songs and poetry of the period; it is not the only recording to have done so, but it is likely to be the first one that attendees at the Stratford Festival, say, run across on the rack. Second, it tries to uncover some lesser-known songs: eight pieces on the disc are devoted to the comparatively little-known Robert Jones, along with works by Dowland and Robert Johnson and poetry by Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Thomas Campion, Sir Walter Raleigh, and others. Fortunately, it all hangs together beautifully. A good deal of the credit goes to the performer who will no doubt be the disc's strongest drawing card -- actor Ralph Fiennes, who reads the poetry in a direct, immensely appealing style. Sample his reading of Raleigh's love poem "In the grace of wit, of tongue, of face," track 9, and you may be instantly hooked on the disc. The two countertenors involved, England's James Bowman and Canada's Daniel Taylor, perform both together and singly on the disc. Both are supremely gifted interpreters of this material, with smooth voices that achieve startling intimacy and control in these small, sad songs. Their voices would seem to complement each other well, with Bowman's more plaintive sound set against the creamy surfaces of Taylor, but the duets do not work quite as well -- the two singers push and pull the tempos in ways that neither seems entirely at ease with. This may be a matter of subjective preference, however, and any general lover of the golden age of English music, poetry, and drama will profit from having this disc on the shelf and in the stereo or digital music player.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim