DOWLAND Seven Tears BENJAMIN Upon Silence
French viol consort Sit Fast (named after a piece by Christopher Tye) have shown a liking for cycles in their two recordings to date – the complete Purcell Fantazias and Bach’s The Art of Fugue (both on Eloquentia). Now here they are with Dowland’s seven incrementally altered versions of the pavan known in its song version as ‘Flow my tears’, published in 1604 and thus perhaps the earliest of all great instrumental cycles.
What makes it so great is the way Dowland uses the slowest, most substantial and most emotive dance form of his time to explore many subtle degrees of melancholy, a sentiment which Sit Fast choose to mine in markedly slow tempos. They thus differ from the recent Gramophone Award-winning recording by Phantasm, which is generally quicker by about a third. Phantasm focus on the expressive power of Dowland’s shifting harmonies and keep the music’s dance pace in mind, but Sit Fast appear more interested in transparency and the lingering long line, delivered in tones more delicate, silvery and intimate than Phantasm’s firmly projected sound. If there is a risk in Sit Fast’s drawn-out manner, it is that the cycle can come across as uneventful. The short gaps between tracks don’t help, undermining the rhythm of the cycle by not quite allowing enough time for reflection on the pavan just gone and anticipation of the next. But there are beauties here nonetheless.
Whereas Phantasm followed the seven pavans with the 14 other dances from Dowland’s original publication, Sit Fast have coupled them with George Benjamin’s setting of Yeats’s poem ‘Upon Silence’. The work is as exquisite as you would expect from its composer – inward, intimate and brilliantly sensitive to the subtle tensions between motion and stillness. The work was originally composed for Fretwork and recorded by them with Susan Bickley; Sit Fast’s reading with Sarah Breton is more delicate and texturally lucid, if less strongly shaped and coloured.