At this price, they don't have to be the world's best, good is good enough. However, North's performances are better than good.
Tone: North is capable of real subtlety in shading and colouring the tone he produces. This adds a whole dimension to the music, a source of near-infinite expressive variety. The use of two different types of lute helps. In a 'catalogue' recording like this, the danger is that the ears will grow weary through too much sameness in the sound. This is minimised here. Just occasionally, I find myself wondering if the tone-colour variety within a piece is always expressively, musically meaningful, or just done for the sake of variety. Now and then there is tone-colour drift within a single voice-line that reduces the distinctiveness of the voice. Sometimes less is more! But this is little more than a quibble: mostly tone-colour is used thoughtfully. Overall, I prefer the physical sound North makes over that of Lindberg or O'Dette.
Likewise with dynamics, the lute is capable of a wide range, from whisper quiet to strong and strident. North is not afraid to exploit nearly the whole range. Perhaps exploring whisper-quiets and harsh louds slightly more would have been a good tactic for increasing variety in a large catalogue like this? When he does push the boundaries, it is quite exciting!
When recording so much music, the challenge is to achieve a distinct characterisation for each piece. North really does well at this: thoughtful and sometimes surprising choices of tempo, rubato, mood, judicious use of ornamentation. Each piece sounds different from the last. He convinces us that he's come at each piece freshly, giving it time and individual attention. Occasionally I wish the dances danced a bit more, a bit more movement and energy. But at least you get the feeling that North has thought about it and made a considered interpretive decision.
North's performances have a degree of musical sensitivity that wins the listener over. He is paying attention most, if not all of the time. He understands how to build tension, and how to achieve various degrees of relaxation at the cadences. His final cadences are often gloriously relaxed, giving a convincingly 'finished' feel to the piece.
North is completely at home and confident in this repertoire, and these are strong, masculine performances, not introspective or tentative. Just what Dowland should be. North really seems to enjoy the music. As why wouldn't he - it's John Dowland! But we hear North as well as Dowland, coming through - there is personality to these performances, inventiveness, playfulness, depth of feeling. North finds fresh expressive potential at every point even in the pieces which are normally considered minor. This is detailed music-making which will reward repeated listenings. In fact the more I listen, the more I like it.
North's command of polyphony and voice-leading is impressive. Each voice is given its own colouring, dynamic and rhythmic integrity. He manages to make the melodies sing out, even in the midst of complex textures such as those of the fantasias. It's pretty nice to listen to!
The result is, we enjoy Dowland's music in a richer way than before. And all for $12! Incredible. Feel a bit guilty paying so little.
Hopkinson Smith's single CD of Dowland may outshine North's in sheer musical genius, but North gives us the complete works, and the set is very special. Hard to resist...