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When word seeped out this summer that the rock star Sting was recording a set of 17th century lute songs for the classical label Deutsche Grammophon, there was a universal curling of lips on both sides of the musical mouthpiece.
Classical purists on the stiff upper jaw hooted at the idea that a Tyneside microphone basher could achieve accuracy, quietude or period style in the delicate laments of John Dowland, the contrapuntal English melancholic. Baring their lower molars, loyalists of the rock sector mocked the ex-Police man as a sell-out for aping McCartney, Costello and other Hall of Fame bygones in attempting a classical facelift. Even merchants of tacky crossover muttered that this might be a bridge too far.
Setting aside all preconceptions I donned a white coat of critical neutrality and listened to the record under surgical lights, surprised to find it both coherent and credible, for the most part. Dowland (1563-1626) is a difficult composer to like. Unappreciated at the spirited Elizabethan Court, he plucked his way morbidly across Italy before landing a well-paid job at the court of Denmark, complaining all the while in his ayres and letters home that nobody loved him. Semper Dowland, semper dolens was his Latin motto: always Dowland, always miserable. A summons to London from austere King James I in 1612 eased his latter years but not his dour mood. Dowland was never happier than when setting words like ‘in darkness let me dwell, the ground shall sorrow be’. He is the patron saint of musical miserablists.
Sting (born 1951) is renowned for such cheerful tracks as So Lonely, King of Pain and Bring on the Night. His biggest hit, Every Breath You Take, is an anguished essay on sexual jealousy. After the Police break-up in 1986, he delved seriously into Shakespeare with Nothing Like the Sun and, exploring the music of the period, conceived so fierce an affinity with Dowland that he learned to play the 13-stringed archlute. A Geordie by birth and accent, Sting’s portraits and pronouncements – ‘I do my best work when I am in pain and turmoil’ - suggest a common disposition with Dowland, a brotherhood in gloom.
Sting was encouraged to attempt the songs by a close friend, the French classical pianist Katia Labeque and is accompanied on the album by the Sarajevo lutenist Edin Karamazov, an interpreter of virtuosic authenticity. Anticipating objections from academic guardians of idiomatic correctness, Sting has argued in the programme notes and press releases that he is more concerned with placing the music in the popular context for which it was written, for untutored audiences to hear and enjoy, drawing a symbiotic inference between a modern rock legend and an early English singer-songwriter. ‘I’m not a trained singer for this repertoire,’ admits Sting, ‘but I’m hoping that I can bring some freshness to these songs that perhaps a more experienced singer wouldn’t give. For me they are pop songs written around 1600 and I relate to them in that way; beautiful melodies, fantastic lyrics, and great accompaniments.’ There is much to admire in his approach - a keen feel for language, an acute musical intelligence and an absence of the plummy Foreign Office accent and reedy pitch that turns most formal Dowland recitals into diplomatic ordeals. Most of all, the sympathy between singer and song is vivid and pronounced. Sting claims to find passion and happiness in the oeuvre, but he knows best whereof he sings when he hits the line ‘there let me live forlorn’. Music, like life, is not a bowl of cherries and those who make their living trailing it around the world have much to lament about.
This is heartfelt stuff, rendered with more than enough art and discretion to avoid mawkishness and the charge of self-advertisement. I particularly like his gravelly attack on the songs, like a road-roller before the age of Macadam, and the urgent, almost desperate, quest for melancholic solace in lonely misanthropy. The occasional rock effect of echo chamber and over-dubbing is not overly intrusive and even the slurring of sharp consonants, fudging some of Dowland’s sourest lines, is acceptable in the context of a reconfigured presentation.
On the night of the album’s release, Sting and Karamazov will perform Dowland live and unadorned at LSO St Luke’s in a recital to be aired on Radio 3. With the inexorable outward ripples of celebrity culture, it is safe to assume that Dowland will earn at least 15 minutes of fame and that, in civilisation terms, is no bad thing. He may even catch on, as Gregorian chant did a decade ago, as a wind-down disco hit.
The only disabling aspect of the enterprise, and it is a crippling one, lies in the delivery of the songs. Sting gets the notes approximately right and conveys the colour with genuine feeling but a background in rock has ruined his breathing and he is unable to master the line of a work, let alone allow it to arch across a long phrase. Low on oxygen, he delivers short, blunt phrases without concern for architecture, like a house where no two rooms sit on the same floor.
I have never heard a disc that tires the ear so quickly, not by incompetence or unmusicality but by lack of structural integrity. I prefer Sting’s voice to the mock-castrates who usually tweet this music, but his inability to give it breath makes an hour in his company seem longer than infinity. Sting sings Dowland was a good idea on paper, and it contains some memorable moments, but this should never have been an album. A single would have done just fine.
Sting: Songs from the Labyrinth is released on October 9.
** Mourning Malcolm Arnold
There are many things that can drive a man mad but none is so effective as isolation. The symphonist Sir Malcolm Arnold, who has died at 84, suffered a ban by the BBC and the classical establishment that accelerated his decline into insanity.
The problem with Malcolm was that he wrote too appealingly. A former trumpeter in the London Philharmonic, he knew the orchestra inside out and exactly what audiences liked. His style was continental, with echoes of Mahler and Shostakovich, and his admirers included Yehudi Menuhin, Denis Brain and Julian Bream, for whom he wrote vivacious concertos. He famously won an Oscar for the soundtrack to David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai.
But the establishment favoured abstruse atonality and balked at his excessive appetites for work, drink and women. His major birthdays went unmarked, his symphonies unplayed. After violent episodes, he was sectioned in a mental asylum.
When his life was documented for TV a dozen years ago, I was the only critic to stick a head above the parapet and champion his cause. Malcolm, subdued by drugs, asked the producer chillingly if he had ever been locked up. ‘If you are,’ he said sombrely, ‘I will come and visit you.’
Apart from Simon Rattle, who conducted one of his dance suites at his first teenaged concert and maintains a soft spot for the fifth symphony, the establishment has closed ranks and denied responsibility for Arnold’s fate. Too late now for victim support, but the music demands to be heard – especially the second, fifth and seventh symphonies. Hands up the first London orchestra with the guts to make amends.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]