The American lutenist, educator, scholar and conductor Paul O’Dette has been at the top of his field now for more years than many of us have had hot dinners. He cut his first disc back in 1979 and has since made over 140 recordings, winning two Grammys and being nominated a remarkable seven times. In other words, he’s a bit of a living legend. His set of the complete lute music of John Dowland on Harmonia Mundi remains a benchmark, one reason why this particular recital – Mr. Dowland’s Midnight – part of New York’s enterprising Music Before 1800 series, was a must see. That is was also performed in an intimate, wood-panelled room that held a mere 70 people upstairs at Manhattan’s Kosciuszko Foundation was the icing on the cake.

O’Dette remains the same slightly puckish figure to be found reclining on a grassy hillside with Jakob Lindberg on the cover of my 1985 copy of English Lute Duets. The hair may be grey, the trademark beard now snowy white (shades of His golden locks time hath to silver turn’d from The First Booke of Songs or Ayres, Dowland’s moving tribute to Queen Elizabeth’s retiring champion, Henry Lee) but the face and especially the youthful looking hands are pretty much untouched by time. For this all-Dowland recital he played a handsome eight-course lute after the Paduan lutier Vendelio Venere, crafted by Paul Thomson of Bristol in 1991.

It turns out that O’Dette is also a fabulous raconteur, informing us how recent research has revealed that Dowland was not just spying on the court of James I for his paymaster, the Danish King Christian IV, he was actually a double agent, spying on the Danish court at the same time for the English. The reason lutenists made such successful spies, O’Dette told us, was that of all court musicians, only they, with their unobtrusive and gentle strains, were permitted in the privy chambers. Once there, of course, they were ideally placed to overhear a choice political titbit. “The life of a lute-player is a dangerous one,” he smiled somewhat ruefully.

The generous program ranged widely, from pieces rarely heard to a decent selection of Dowland’s greatest hits. Sensitively arranged, each tended to illuminate the others, as for example the way the stately Pavin (not at all melancholy, mind) and Galliard came sandwiched between two of the composer’s more exploratory and improvisatory works, simply called A Fancy. In and out of triple time, the upbeat sections and final decorative flourish provided a thorough workout for O’Dette’s fingers, both right and left hand, while the more ruminative moments were laced with pungent passing chromaticisms.

Among Dowland’s more delicious compositions were those written for patrons whose names have come down to us attached to their respective dance tunes. My Lady Hunnsdon must have been delighted with her ‘Puffe,’ here given a lovely dynamic shape with nimble decorations. Sir John Smith must have been similarly chuffed with his winning Almaine, though what he’d have made of its demanding fingerings is anybody’s business. Later, O’Dette gave Mrs. Vaux’s jaunty, folkish ‘Jigge’ a cheekily suspended conclusion before leaping into Mistris Winters Jump in a section paying tribute to Dowland’s humorous side.

The King of Denmark’s Galliard prompted another salty tale. Short of a piece for his new royal master, Dowland apparently dusted off his 20-year-old Battle Galliard, a popular work in England, but a work he figured would be unknown in Scandinavia. O’Dette clearly relished its flamboyant triple time and its warring keys of D Major and F Major, pointing out Dowland’s sly irony in relabeling the work as tribute to a monarch notorious for his shortcomings when it came to military affairs.

Equally commanding in Dowland’s more introspective music, O’Dette delivered a searching account of the restless inward wanderings of Semper Dowland semper dolens (Always Dowland, always sorrowful) and made relatively light of the fiendish divisions of Forlorne Hope Fancye with its gloomy chromatic ascents and descents. The profundities of Lachrimae and the contrapuntal challenges of the deceptively simple Farewell likewise proved no significant hurdle.

Perhaps the best was saved till last. The Frogg Galliard is based on Dowland’s song Now, o now I needs must part, and may relate to the visit of the amorously unsuccessful and famously ugly Duc d’Alençon, who was rejected by Queen Elizabeth but not before she had referred to him as her “frog”. Here, it was lavishly decorated and wonderfully played, only topped by O’Dette’s virtuosic take on the charmingly busy and surprisingly modern-sounding Fantasie. A very special night’s music making indeed.

You can read more about Music Before 1800 here

Contribute to Limelight and support independent arts journalism.