Critics seem to have been sharpening their knives for this release. Certainly the circumstantial case against any rock singer recording a "classical" album for Deutsche Grammophon is pretty strong, as those who remember Elvis Costello's album with Anne Sophie Von Otter will have cause to agree. The fact is, however, that although the songs of John Dowland have been recorded many, many times most of those who attack this album will be basing their complaints on a personal antipathy to Sting rather than any concerns with the actual performance.
Lute duties here are principally handled by Edin Karamazov: not the leading lutanist in this repertoire (that would probably be Anthony Rooley) but perfectly competent in material that is in any case not virtuosic. Dowland's songs do not require outstanding, classically-trained vocals, and Sting's interpretations are perfectly acceptable, with some nice differentiation of style from one song to another. They are also idiomatic, so fans of Sting's rock voice will have to put up with him singing in a mannered (though still fairly light) vocal style.
If you are in the market for a Dowland set, I can't see why you would buy this one, and there is a slight problem created by the introduction of spoken interludes (extracts from Dowland's writings) which spoil the programming slightly. That said, I personally bought this disc for curiosity value, and seen in that light it is well worth the investment.
on 15 November 2006
From the outset let me say that I have always been a huge fan of Sting, and of John Dowland. But I was unsure that the two could possibly go together. Having listened to the CD several times now, I am still unsure but the idea is growing on me.
Let's face it, Sting is not the world's best vocalist, his breathy nasal voice being well-suited to ska and light jazz, but ultimately tending to be tiresome. The problem is not just his voice, but perhaps more his odd vowel sounds which have always been a little unnatural and that is very obvious here with his voice rather forward in the mix.
So my first thought was that there are many very beautiful renderings of this material by specialists like Ian Partridge and Sting's offering seemed to add nothing to the corpus. In fact, I thought, I could probably sing this stuff better. But that's to fall for the great myth of period music, which is that today's highly trained professional musicians are at all representative of how this music might have been performed in its own day. Of course, they are not. This is music for the 16th century everyman, which would have been sung by minstrels and troubadours, with voices possibly more like Sting's than not. So there's actually a curious authenticity to this.
The lutenist plays with vigour, and whilst technically not the best I've heard, imbues the music with energy and passion. The readings in between songs from Dowland's letters and diaries are interesting, biut somewhat tokenistic. I'd like to have heard far more, or none at all. And the level of the speaking voice is quite low, which means that to actually hear what is said, especially, say, in the car, you have to crank up the volume to the point that the next vocal entry is too loud.
So to the classical purist, this will not satisfy, but to fans of Sting who are perhaps curious about renaissance music, it might be just the ticket. Have a listen and make up your own mind.
on 9 November 2014
This album was released on October 6th 2006. After releasing Sacred love (an album of original songs) in 2003 Sting once again, just like in the late 80's, began to suffer a bout of writer's block. With no new songs he decided to rediscover the songs of John Dowland and was introduced to lutenist Edin Karamazov through Sting's long time guitarist Dominic Miller. Together they created this album of songs written by John Dowland, a 16th-17th century Lute player who played in the courts of royalty including King Christian IV of Denmark but he never managed to receive the position he so heartedly coveted - to play in the court of Elizabeth I of England and later James I.
The album is a collection of Dowland’s songs, 1 by Robert Johnson who was a contemporary, and a letter written by Dowland to Sir Robert Cecil; secretary of state for Queen Elizabeth I when it was written in 1595. Sting calls it “a musical soundtrack” to the composers life and I think it’s a tribute that Dowland should be proud of. The booklet has plenty of information including the full story of the meeting of Karamazov, the life and times of John Dowland and Sting’s own experiences and opinions on the songs, as well as some original pictures of Dowland’s artefacts.
I actually bought the CD-DVD collection entitled ‘The journey and the labyrinth’ a year before I purchased the original album as I didn’t know how I would take the music and was putting it off for a while. When I watched the DVD documentary and listened to the live CD I was greatly impressed so decided I’d buy the original album and I’m very glad I did!
Having a mix of instrumental songs, lyrical songs - all melancholy in lyric but some being very bright and cheery in music such as Fine knacks for ladies (which uses a choir), the amazing Come again (1 of my favourites) and Clear or cloudy, and the pleading letter to Cecil, it really does give an insight into Dowland’s life and his feelings at the time. Dowland was obviously a very melancholy character, but with wry humour present in many of the lyrics, and some of the songs being quite upbeat and jolly, he definitely wasn’t what some describe as a ‘depressive‘.
My personal favourite from the album is the Robert Johnson (17th century lutenist not Blues musician) song Have you seen the bright lily grow? I can safely say it’s 1 of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. This album is full of real music, as Sting said; “there is nowhere to hide“, it’s just lute and vocal and that simplicity is where the beauty and quality lies. I could name all my favourites but really there isn’t one song that I don’t like. I am not a classically trained musician or a classical buff at all and I’m writing as a fan of a massive range of genres, classical being 1 that I do really appreciate. The music is amazing, and Karamazov’s talent is explicitly displayed in the instrumental Forlorn hope fancy. Together with Sting’s amazing vocals, which he says was a challenge for him, especially for Weep you no more sad fountains, these songs are carried with real eminence. The original album ends with In darkness let me dwell which Karmazov calls “The greatest song ever written in the English language” and was the first Dowland song Karamazov performed for Sting.
For this 2008 Australian and Asian tour special edition there are 3 bonus tracks - Fields of gold; which really fits in well with lute backing, Message in a bottle - live and Have you seen the bright lily grow - live. The live recordings, arguably have more life and vigour than the originals and sound just as great.
This is an incredible project and Sting has shown his versatility as a musician and singer with this masterpiece. I have a lot of respect for Sting because he respects the history of music and that is clearly depicted in this beautiful tribute to these 400 year old compositions. It's far more than just a cover album that's for sure!
on 27 October 2006
I must admit, being more of a fan of 16th Century music than Sting, I was very much intrigued to hear what a modern rock musician would make of a composer such as Dowland, and having heard his verion of "Come again" twice on the radio and once on the TV, I decided that it was worth getting. In many ways I am what could be referred to as a "classical snob", a believer in trained and authentic performance, but in todays world of classical music where only the flawless performances seem to be worth mentioning, I find it refreshing to hear this music performed by someone with little classical training. When you imagine how popular Dowland was in his own time, it seems fitting that Sting should be singing these songs today, presenting them as they would most likely have been heard back then. And if that doesn't sway you, you only have to read the inlay notes and listen to his clear articulation to see how much Sting respects the old traditions and wanted to do his best (in his own way) for the sake of the music.
on 13 December 2006
I don't really think Sting is the greatest of the interpreters of Dowland's songs. But one is more used to listening to this repertoire by the likes of Alfred Deller and, with this in mind, his efforts cannot but sound rather strange and a bit coarse in a first hearing. But the more you listen to the CD, the more compelling it becomes and Sting certainly cuts the picture of an Elizabethan gentleman in a most proper manner. It is a great thing to have a refined artist taking such a refined challenge, in a time when some stars of the bel canto do not hesitate much in lowering their standards to the interpretation of some dusty standards. Going against the trend, he might not have quite hit the bull's eye, but it is a most lovely and gratifying personal project and I cannot but recommend it to those who love Elizabethan music.
Five star or one star- I reckon you will love or loathe this CD. I love it. I love it - tiny moments of bells tolling, birds singing, dogs barking and spoken words from a letter bringing the presence of John Dowland and some of the highs and lows and flavour of his life. I love how Sting describes his own voice as 'unschooled tenor' - it makes this cover different. Some will not like a little bit of multi-tracking of vocals. I think it is interesting. I can imagine John Dowland enjoying the effect. Edin Karamazov gives generous lute and arch lute accompaniment on many of the songs and some fine solos. I enjoy the sweet heaviness of 'Forlorn Hope Fancy'. Edin and Sting duet effectively on lutes for,- 'My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home'. The final track, 'In darkness let me dwell,' is thought by Edin Karamazov to be,- 'the greatest song ever written in the English language.' He may be right.
Maybe you need to make up your mind about this CD before you buy it. Don't believe what anyone else thinks.
on 29 November 2009
This is not for the POP STING fans! This is a very brave stab at some very old music! Well done STING; however, it needs to be listened to with a sense of quiet!!
Being a huge fan of Sting, and also an active classical musician and musicologist, I was intrigued to hear this new release which brings two seemingly disparate traditions together. I had, indeed, hoped that it would be a surprisingly successful musical exploration, this hope being based on my long standing admiration for Sting as a popular musician of the very highest calibre.
Unfortunately I cannot agree with the previous two reviews and find Sting's voice and vocal style woefully short of the task. The lute playing (mostly not Sting) on the CD is beautiful and sensitive, but the lack of focus in Sting's vocals lets the whole production down. Also irritating in music of this sort, is hearing Sting's voice multi-tracked rather than combined with those of other singers in the multi-part pieces. For me, this severely affects the natural realism that I want to hear in these wonderful songs and, in the end, the project does neither Dowland or Sting any justice.
Sadly not a release to be recommended.
on 24 September 2006
Earlier this year when Sting broke the news that his new project would be an album of Elizabethan-era tunes performed on the lute, it is probably fair to say that it took everyone by surprise. At a time when the course of action for established artists is often the easy option of reaching for the standards catalogue, releasing a live album from the last tour, or of rejoining long-split bands for a nostalgia-fest and a bumper pay day on the road it was somehow deeply refreshing to see Sting instead turn his attention to the works of John Dowland. On reflection however, it should come as no surprise that during a career that has been notable for its unpredictability and occasional side projects like A Soldier's Tale, Peter & the Wolf, and 3 Penny Opera that something interesting and unique was on Sting's mind.
Despite being possibly the world's first singer-songwriter - certainly by our modern understanding of the term - Dowland remains something of an enigma. As an English catholic he understandably felt persecuted in his home country where his religion meant that he would never hold the position of court lutenist to Queen Elizabeth that he both desired and felt his talents deserved. Consequently, he spent much of his time - like his modern day contemporaries - travelling and performing around the courts of Europe where he was accepted and celebrated. During these travels Dowland wrote a celebrated letter to Sir Robert Cecil, the Queen's Secretary of State and extracts from this letter are featured throughout the new album and help to put his music into an historical context.
The comedian John Bird first introduced Sting to Dowland's works in 1982 when the two were involved in the "Secret Policeman's Ball" concerts for Amnesty International. Further prompting by Katia Labeque more than a decade later led him to learn a handful of his tunes, but it was through his friend Dominic Miller that Sting's interest was particularly stimulated. Dominic introduced him to lutenist Edin Karamazov backstage at one of the Sacred Love dates and commissioned the building of a lute for Sting as a present. The end result, an album entitled Songs From The Labyrinth, is released by Deutsche Grammaphon in October.
Songs From The Labyrinth draws the inspiration for its title from a number of sources - the unusual labyrinth design on the soundboard of the lute that Dominic presented to Sting; the famous labyrinth on the floor of Chartres cathedral which fascinated Sting to the degree that he had an earthwork copy built at Lake House; and the way he describes how he was drawn in by the "labyrinthine complexities and beguiling music" of the lute.
Comprising of five instrumental tracks, eleven tracks with vocals and seven extracts from Dowland's aforementioned letter to Sir Robert Cecil interspersed between the music, newcomers to Dowland's music will be pleased to learn that although his lyrics may have often been despondent and sad, on the evidence of the pieces on this album his music was often not. It is almost hard to believe that the Elizabethan "King of Pain" who wrote Flow my tears and In darkness let me dwell (which must be one of the darkest and most dissonant songs ever written) was the same person who wrote the beautiful melody of Come again and demonstrated the pop sensibilities displayed in The lowest trees have tops.
The album opens with a short piece, the introduction of Dowland's arrangement of As I went to Walsingham which was an anonymous popular ballad of the era. The other instrumentals on the album are the duet My Lord Willoughby's welcome home, the magnificently titled The Most High and Mighty Christianus the Fourth, King of Denmark, His Galliard and two fantasias (or fancies) including the exquisite Fantasy and the complex Forlorn Hope Fancy. The latter is reminiscent of Bach although predates him by almost a hundred years. Both of these fancies superbly demonstrate Dowland's composing skills.
Fine knacks for ladies is one of two songs that offer some beautiful four part harmonising and because Sting has taken all the vocal parts, the listener is rewarded with a dazzling "Sting choir" effect. This is not overdone, and consequently provides some additional richness and warmth particularly in the jaunty Can she excuse my wrongs? Interestingly, the latter was reputedly written by Robert Devereux the Earl of Essex, one of Queen Elizabeth's favourite courtiers until she finally tired of him, signing his death warrant in 1601, an act that it is reputed to have broken her aging heart.
Sting admits the most vocally challenging song on the album in terms of range and technique was the demanding Weep you no more, sad fountains and he has acknowledged the help he was given by singing teacher Richard Levitt from the Schola Cantorum in Basle. Have you seen the bright lily grow is something of an oddity in that the hand of Dowland is not featured on this track which has lyrics by the poet Benjamin Jonson and was composed by Robert Johnson (the son of John Johnson who took the job of court lutenist that Dowland so coveted).
Throughout the album, extracts from Dowland's fearful letter to Sir Robert Cecil are read by Sting in a guarded, conspiratory whisper, and give an insight into Dowland's mindset while he was away in Europe. They show a man wounded at not getting the job he desired and being surprisingly frank in saying that he felt this was because of his religion. But the deferential tone of the letter is such that you are left in doubt that this was an age when careless talk to the wrong person could have fatal consequences.
Fans of Sting's acoustic music will love hearing his voice sounding so rich, pure and prominent on this album, and the lute playing by Sting and Edin Karamazov is a joy. One of the most striking things about listening to the lyrics on this album is how beautiful and expressive our language was in Elizabethan times and it is a pleasure to be immersed in it. Songs From The Labyrinth is an affectionate and uplifting exploration of John Dowland's music, and, based on our experience, the listener will feel much richer for having allowed Sting to navigate them through this collection of his songs.
on 19 February 2007
And so far I don't. It was a much wanted present, based on one song I had heard, and an interview with Sting. The playing is superb, the intentions of the artist impeccable, it's his voice that seems to me just not right for this music. I could be wrong, and I will definitely give it a couple more plays, because I want to like it; you can tell its made with immense love and care. So do take the Reverend's advice and listen before you buy.
PS Sorry, Sting, it didn't get better for me!