Composer Robert Johnson was part of the circle of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson at the beginning of the 17th century. Little of his music has survived; this release by British-American lutenist Nigel North includes most of what did. Johnson's music was probably used in Shakespeare's plays, and this album may be of interest to theatrical producers for that reason. It consists of dances: pavanes, galliards, almains (allemands), and titled pieces like The Witches' Dance (track 7), mostly of the sort that Dowland, another contemporary, also composed. But the effect of Johnson's music is different; it's simpler, more transparent, and much less given to melancholy than Dowland's. Sample the economical elegance of The Fairies' Dance (track 10) for a taste. The virtuosity lies mostly in the ornaments applied rather than in the notated music, but the four numbered pavanes and a few other pieces have "divisions" or variations attached. North informs the buyer in his notes (in English only) that Pavan No. 2 "has divisions which I felt were not good enough to be Johnson's, so I preferred to add my own." This is questionable policy with little-known music, but in general North's performances are graceful, confident, lyrical, and clean. The same can't be said for the sound, which places the lute in an Ontario church (is that a place a lute feels at home?) where the sound is too live and picks up extraneous instrument noise a 17th century audience would never have heard. Still, this release will find an audience among Renaissance lute fans and those interested in Shakespeare and his era.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim