Francesco da Milano (1497-1543), known to his contemporaries as “il divino”, was undoubtedly the greatest lute composer of his era. Working in the service of three successive Popes, his fame was such that copies of his music appeared in manuscripts well into the 1600s and form the largest body of work for the instrument from the previous century. His hundred or so ricercars and fantasias, contrasting dense counterpoint with improvisatory scale passages, give some idea of his renowned skill as an improviser, plus some intabulations of contemporary vocal chansons; all exquisite pieces with a unique flavour and a cool, chaste beauty that recalls early Renaissance painters.
The great American lutenist Paul O’Dette, responsible for many fine recordings of Renaissance music including the complete lute works of Dowland (try his disc of Simon Molinaro if you can find it), has assembled a selection of favourites into ‘proto-suites’ to make a coherent program that one can either dip into or listen straight through. He plays with his usual impeccably clean technique, pure bell-like tone and rhythmic elan, internal lines clearly voiced, virtuosic runs crisp in articulation and flexibly phrased – a careful balance of brilliance and contemplation. Recorded with Harmonia Mundi’s usual clarity and presence, with informative notes by the performer, this fine disc is not just for devotees.