Casual pronouncements are made every so often that the lute songs of Elizabethan England were the pop music of their day. The lutenist is said to be the 16th-century version of the guitar hero — a solitary character who played in courts and developed a moody, quixotic reputation. Movies and popular culture have portrayed lutes as being for the odd county fair minstrel, or the hapless suitor serenading a fair maiden.
But lute music wasn’t entirely a solo pursuit. During the high English renaissance (roughly 1570-1620) composers wrote more than 80 works for lute duet. In these, each lutenist plays nearly the same music, alternating between melody and accompaniment. On "Two Lutes," the lutenists Ronn McFarlane and William Simms recapture nearly 30 of these duets, most of which are seldom performed today.
“It feels like a conversation, with each lutenist posing musical questions and answers throughout,” McFarlane explains of the music in the album’s liner notes. At times the chordal accompaniment is very simple and repetitive, and a skilled player would want to vary his or her part to make it more satisfying. In this recording, the improvising skills of Simms come to the fore.
About one-third of the songs on the collection come from the pen of John Johnson, England’s Royal lutenist, who served Queen Elizabeth I during the first years of her reign. They include the scampering “Trenchmore,” the reflective “The Delight Pavan,” and the rollicking “The Queen’s Treble.” Also featured are several songs by Thomas Robinson, a Danish court composer who projected the inward, melancholic quality of the instrument in songs like “Passemezo Galliard” and “A Plaine Song.”
The third major name on the album is the self-styled king of the lute, John Dowland, who is represented with two songs tinged with refined sadness. Rounding out the collection are some anonymous numbers including the ever-popular “Greensleeves.” However obscure the majority of this music is, Simms and McFarlane approach the recording with an air of warmth and accessibility.
Ronn MacFarlane and Williams Simms
Available at Arkivmusic.com