Bor Zuljan - Dowland: A Fancy - Gramophone

‘Melancholy struck Elizabethan England like an epidemic’, writes lutenist Bor Zuljan. Words, as it’s turned out, perfect for our own troubled times. As is the music of that most melancholic of composers, John Dowland.

Then again, the performance of the music of the distant past is an inherently melancholy act. Perhaps the extent to which a performer recognises this should be one of the chief criteria for judging their success in any such enterprise? If so, Zuljan succeeds very well here. This is an original, improvisatory yet often deeply introspective recital, masterfully curated, mainly of Dowland’s fantasias for solo lute, ‘remarkable masterpieces of counterpoint, rhetoric, architecture and virtuosity’.

Zuljan enters, as they say, a crowded field, with fine recordings of Dowland’s solo lute music available from masters such as Paul O’Dette, Jakob Lindberg, Nigel North, Hopkinson Smith and Matthew Wadsworth. They are many years Zuljan’s senior. But has any so accurately captured our flawed selves in this distorting infinity mirror hall of Renaissance counterpoint and variations on songs and dances which Dowland himself distorted through endless improvisation?

Performing on a dark-toned eight-course lute after Venere (1582) by Jiří Čepelák (Prague, 2012), with gut strings by Corde Drago, Zuljan draws us gently downwards with the opening descending chromatic melody of A Fantasia into a tenebrous world filled with shakes and dissonances, songs and dances troubled by rapid divisions and brooding fancies and fantasies whose contrapuntal tensions invariably lead to calamitous denouements.

The final fantasia, Farewell, opens with a chromatic ascending figure, thus mirroring the first work. Zuljan has led us back into the world. But in hushed tones, for night has fallen.

01 October 2020