Dowland in Dublin

Michael Slattery / La Nef

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Dowland in Dublin Review

by James Manheim

The title of this release refers not to any sojourn of the peripatetic John Dowland in the Irish capital, although it has been claimed without any very good evidence that he was actually born in Ireland. Instead, these are arrangements of famous Dowland works in the style of contemporary Irish folk music. The reaction "Why?" is appropriate, but let it be said that these versions by American tenor Michael Slattery and the Canadian early music group La Nef work better than they have a right to. Slattery says that he was influenced by Sting's recording of Dowland songs, not in the specific sound but in the freedom the rockstar felt to depart from the originals. The chief attraction lies in the variety of treatments, which ensures that, whatever you may think of this recording, it's never dull in the least. Some of Dowland's songs are given fairly straightforwardly; some begin simply and treat the tune as a basis for a kind of Irish fantasy, complete with percussion. Some, perhaps the least successful, force the music into Irish dance rhythms. And a fascinating group reduces the accompaniment to a string drone, giving the music an Eastern tinge. Slattery's voice is well worth hearing: youthful, bright, and yet quiet in keeping with its musical surroundings. You might object that performances like these add little to the understanding of a deeply enigmatic figure, and you'd be right; even Sting, with his attempt to put Dowland into a political context, engaged with the music more deeply than this does. But it's highly listenable, and in a certain fearless outlook resides an X factor that commends this release to those of a musically speculative mindset.

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