Concordia/Levy, Purcell Room, London

Click to follow

If English composers have recurrently turned to the sound of stringed instruments to express their profoundest thoughts, then the fountainhead of that fascination is surely John Dowland's Lachrimae. First published in 1604, for viol quintet with lute continuo, these "Seaven Teares Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans" comprise a unique large-scale set of variations, in which the long, sombrely harmonised melody - soon to be famous throughout Europe - is subtly reworked six times. The result is a musical Anatomy of Melancholy.

In celebrating the 400th anniversary of Dowland's publication, Mark Levy commissioned seven complementary pieces for his consort Concordia from seven contemporary British composers, to comprise The New Lachrimae, for the 2004 Cheltenham Festival. These were interspersed with Dowland's sequence.

Concordia are past masters of the plangent Dowland style - or rather, past mistresses, since all but Levy are women. Insinuating an undertone of agitation here, drawing out the "pleasing pain" of a dissonance there, they bring homewhat a range of mood and detail is to be found within Dowland's apparently monotonous scheme.

Not surprisingly, most of the new pieces resonate with sympathetic melancholy. Gavin Bryar's Lachrimae Crepuscule, indeed, sounds like an eighth Dowland pavane that has melted slightly, while Andrew Simpson's Woe, Be Gone comprises restless little spurts of counterpoint on fragmentary Dowland phrases. Michael Zev Gordon sets out with a particular dissonance and, later, a quote, from another Dowland viol piece - Semper Dowland, semper dolens - in his There Always, while Adrian Williams's drifting texture-study Teares to Dreames leads off with ripplings from Elizabeth Kenny's lute.

Sir John Tavener contributes the grave litanies and, for him, unusually chromatic lines of his Lachrymae, before Dowland's last two pavanes wind the sequence down to silence. There have been a lot of these assemblings of little tribute pieces in recent years. For once, this proves an interlinking of old and new that genuinely worked.