“A Decoration of Silence”: Exquisite Lute-Playing by Nigel North

United StatesUnited States Johnson, Van Wilder, de Rippe, Dowland, da Milano, Dalza, and Byrd: Nigel North (lute), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 11.3.2015 (BJ)

John Johnson: The Delight Pavan and Galliard
Philip van Wilder: A Dump
Albert de Rippe: Pavan La Romanesque; O passi sparsi; Fantasie (No. 1)
John Dowland: Lachrimae Pavan; The Earl of Essex, his Galliard; Go from my window;Tarleton’s Resurrection; Mrs. Winter’s Jump
Francesco da Milano: Fantasia “Bellissima”; Fantasia de Francesco Milanese divina; De mon triste desplaisir; Fantasia de mon triste; Fantasias 33 and 34
Joan Ambrosio Dalza: Tastar de corde–Ricercar dietro; Two Calate spagnole
William Byrd: The Woods so Wild; My Lord Willloughby’s Welcome Home


Where has Nigel North been all my life? In the England of the 1950s and ’60s, my first experience of the lute came through hearing Julian Bream, both as a soloist and in partnership with Peter Pears in performances of Elizabethan and Jacobean songs. A little later came Robert Spencer, Walter Gerwig, Hermann Leeb, and Anthony Rooley, whom I heard in the repertoire of the same period with such singers as Alfred Deller, René Soames, Hugues Cuénod, and Emma Kirkby. More recently still, I have come to admire such American exponents of the instrument as Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, artistic co-directors of the Boston Early Music Festival. And I can only call it inexplicable mischance that it has taken me all this time to hear London-born Nigel North, who is now 60 years old, for the first time, because if you make any list of those and other distinguished lutenists and singers of early music, you will find that, at one time or another, North has played with pretty well all of them in a variety of ensembles and recital pairings. The great Bream, in a speech a few years ago, even reminisced about hearing North in “a remarkable recital, one which I wish I had the ability to give.”

Well, better late than never. North’s program note for this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society program was headed “A decoration of silence,” which, he told us, was the 15th-century Italian scholar Marsilio Ficino’s definition of music, and I find it impossible to imagine a more consummately subtle, delicate, or beautiful decoration of it than this exquisite artist achieved. The lute being an instrument with a soft voice, I took care to sit in the front row, not ten feet away from the performer, yet even at such close quarters, there was scarcely a trace of the kind of squeaky slides that sometimes afflict players of the lute. What I heard was the purest and most seductive tone, marshaled with keen expressive intensity and with an expertly judged sense of rhythm, free and disciplined at the same time.

The varying characteristics of the seven composers represented on the program were unerringly realized by North’s playing, and his unpretentiously charming spoken introductions served as a gentle yet authoritative primer on the less familiar of them. Besides such well-known pieces as Dowland’s Lachrimae Pavan and a lute version of Byrd’s setting of The Woods so Wild, I found the music of Francesco da Milano scarcely less beguiling. And when the official program was over, North had had the delightful and typically modest idea, for his encore, of inviting the soprano Laura Heimes, who happened to be in town, to join him for a wittily pointed performance of Thomas Campion’s mischievous song, Fain would I wed a fair young man. It made the perfect light-hearted envoi for yet another splendid PCMS evening.

Bernard Jacobson

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