I approached this release with uncertainty: there are already a number of 'Complete Lute Music' sets of Dowland. I, personally, have the old Consort of Musicke's set, both on LP and CD; more recently, I added the Paul O'Dette set - which is magnificent - and that appeared to have settled Dowland's lute music for a long time.
Now here comes Nigel North - one of the Consorte of Musicke team from over 25 years ago. He was impressive then, and he's even better now. This Naxos issue is a completely new production, recorded in 2004 in Ontario overseen by Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver: the location and team responsible for producing many highly impressive guitar and lute recordings, including the dazzling Weiss Lute Sonatas played by Robert Barto. They understand how to record this subtlest of plucked instruments.
The question is: is it worth buying this set if you already have Paul O'Dette's? The answer is quite simply - yes.
Paul O'Dette plays with a fiery attack that dazzles and impresses - it is magnificently virtuosic playing; but it is not the only way to play Dowland. Nigel North also avoids sentimentalising the music, but he plays with more emotional expressiveness - I keenly await the release of the Dowland pavans!
The mix of pieces on this CD might seem odd at first glance: there are the Fantasias, complex and magnificent creations, interspersed with Dowland's Jigs, Jumps and other comparatively light pieces. The mixture works brilliantly. North plays with delicate strength, embellishing the repeats of the simpler pieces in a way that elevates them musically - listen, for example, to 'Mrs Nichols' Almain', which follows the spectacular 'Tremolo' Fancy (P73); it's like a light dessert after a large main course. However, Nigel North doesn't throw it away lightly - he plays the theme with delicacy and warmth before going on in the repeat to embellish it with many beautifully judged graces and ornaments, as well as interlacing runs above and below the simple melodic line - glorious!
Ther are many more subtle delights awaiting the listener; I could try and describe some, but I won't spoil it - buy the CD (for under £5.00!) and delight in the glories of this music for yourself!