Joachim Held

Merry Melancholy

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Whether or not it's because paying a single lutenist is cheaper than paying a chamber ensemble, to say nothing of a full orchestra, the last few decades have seen the release of a profusion of lute recordings. Those by German lutenist Joachim Held, however, stand out from the crowd. Held is technically superb, capable of producing that effortless quality in which the player's fingers seem almost incidentally to graze the strings. He is backed by fine sound from the reliable Hänssler Classic label, capturing the full range of Held's modern eight-course Renaissance-style lute with a minimum of fuss and extraneous noise. The best feature, however, as with Held's other recordings, is his programming sense. His recordings have explored national styles, in this case the English style. In this he is not alone, but the depth of his exploration is unique. Several of John Dowland's famous works are included, but most of the album is devoted to little-known composers, including Lushier, composer of the lovely opening Almain, who is known only by his surname. The lute pieces by Thomas Robinson, Richard Allison, Francis Cutting, John Johnson, and Philip Rosseter span nearly a century and are not grouped chronologically. Instead, as a lutenist of the age would have done, Held puts them together into sequences that make musical sense and affect the soul. The music seems to pulse with lively detail and then recede into minimalist lassitude, indeed embodying the "merry melancholy" of the album's title. The booklet notes, in German and English, offer biographical detail on the composers for those interested, but even the casual lute lover will find this a compelling recital.

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