Mad Dog (Hopkinson Smith, Lute)
Puzzling title: genius or something else? Given Hopkinson Smith’s long track record for well-thought-out and expressively realized performances, he is on firm ground. Mad Dog is actually a galliard by Anthony Holborne. Presented here are a number so so-called orphan pieces, many unnamed or variants of the same piece, that appear in numerous English manuscripts during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. “Wards Repose” is a title given to a John Johnson piece to honor Smith’s influential musicology professor at Harvard, John Ward. Ward considered this unnamed pavan one of Johnson’s best.
The CD focuses on the works of John Johnson, Anthony Holborne, William Byrd, Gregorio Huwet, and, of course, John Dowland. Lute manuscript books of that time included a diverse collection of composers and styles copied by many scribes. The layout here follows similar suit. The three opening Johnson pieces range from a light and airy galliard to a melancholy pavan/galliard’s reserved and pensive journey through unusual modulations. “Ward’s Repose” is a fitting tribute to John Ward and beautifully rendered.
The following Holborne works are lighter, dancelike, and the “Fantasy” is a wonderful realization of imitative counterpoint. “Pavan Bray,” a keyboard work by William Byrd, is presented from a reworked arrangement by Francis Cutting. Dowland’s cheerful tune “The Shoemaker’s Wife” is ironic considering the old English tale that the shoemaker’s wife was the worst shod of all. The Holborne pavan/galliard returns to a more somber note.
The “Fantasy” by Gregorio Huwet, included in A Varietie of Lute Lessons, may have been Dowland’s connection with “the most famous Gregorio Huwet of Antwerp,” along with a possible connection during their service to the Duke of Brunswick. The likely reworking is considered to be unmatched in eloquence and mastery. Smith follows tradition with creative restructuring of the form and a marvelous interpretation of the flowing counterpoint and imitative lines. It is a consummate performance.
Selections alternate between composers: Dowland’s “Midnight” is peaceful while Holborne’s “Mad Dog” has an energetic dance nature. While one is tempted to lump all Elizabethan lute tunes in three as galliards, Smith sees the Holborne pieces (“Fare Thee Well,” “Passion,” and “My Selfe”) as miniatures with a more lyrical focus. Johnson’s “Days End Pavan” is just the sort of tonic you need at the end of a stressful day: peaceful, melodic, and very relaxing. “Carmen’s Whistle,” a popular melody used by many composers, has a relaxed, dancelike feel. It also refers to the “whistle” that carmen (carters) used to manage their horses.
Hopkinson Smith’s list of awards, CDs, and performances represents a lifelong quest. Past interviews reveal a passion for finding the spirit of the music beyond the tablature. Immediacy, clarity, technique, and language of the day combine the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual essence for interpretation. He focuses on the moment at hand; each performance is its own creation and never considered a definitive version. And so his creative search continues to explore and find meaning in a vast store of lute music. To that end he chose to use a lute tuned a step lower because of the gravity and melancholy nature of most of the works performed here. A great example is Holborne’s “Last Will and Testiment,” with a somber, stately character played to perfection.
This CD is a shining example of how recording techniques have continued to improve. Recorded at the Cloister Beinwil in Switzerland, where the recording engineer used a combination of mics, the highly regarded DPA 4003 known for its transparent, dynamic range and the Neumann M149 tube mic was chosen for added warmth. The Pyramix Studio software used for editing and mix down is known as the preferred tool for reproducing classical and acoustic music. The clear, lifelike performance is captured and beautifully rendered.
Hopkinson Smith is an impressive man with and awe-inspiring body of work who continues to search for that “musical spirit” each time he picks up the lute. If this CD represents the state of lute performance and recording, let the madness continue!
by Frank DeGroodt, (LSA Quarterly, Summer & Fall, 2018)