Paul O'Dette, Purcell Room, London

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The Independent Culture

Stravinsky once called the lute "perhaps the most perfect and certainly the most personal instrument of all". Doubtless he was thinking of its more intimate, silvery tones compared with the fuller sounding guitar. Certainly, the surviving solo repertoire from its English heyday - largely comprising decorative dances, sets of variations and brief fantasias - seems to have been addressed to small circles of listeners, where not intended for the private solace of lutenists alone. And therein lie the problems of promoting the instrument in modern concert conditions.

Stravinsky once called the lute "perhaps the most perfect and certainly the most personal instrument of all". Doubtless he was thinking of its more intimate, silvery tones compared with the fuller sounding guitar. Certainly, the surviving solo repertoire from its English heyday - largely comprising decorative dances, sets of variations and brief fantasias - seems to have been addressed to small circles of listeners, where not intended for the private solace of lutenists alone. And therein lie the problems of promoting the instrument in modern concert conditions.

The moment that the doyen of lutenists, Paul O'Dette, launched into his latest Purcell Room recital with a spirited arrangement of the ballad "Up Tails All", one was reminded that the lute simply cannot project. Even from half a dozen rows back in this modest venue one seemed to be less hearing than overhearing.

Of course, an artist of stature knows how to turn such a limitation to advantage, to bring his listeners "to" him by dwelling with particular affection on the subtler nuances and half tones. But, in planning this survey of "the Golden Age of English Lute Music", O'Dette also faced the problem of how to build a coherent programme from a surviving repertoire in which few pieces last longer than five minutes. His solution was largely to group his 23 chosen items by composer. The first half was framed by an anonymous group including a bouncy version of "John com Kisse mee Now" with running decorations, and four pieces by the first great English composer-player, John Johnson, "royal lewter" to the Virgin Queen. Or, rather, three pieces plus a particularly fine Galliard on the "passing measure" ground bass attributed to Johnson by no scholar save the combative O'Dette himself.

In between, the virtuoso country-house lutenist Daniel Batchelor (1572-1618) supplied a particularly sumptuous Pavan and Galliard, and a version of "Mounsieur's Almaine" full of saucy syncopations - about as showy as one can get on the lute. And from Anthony Holborne (d 1602), "Gentleman usher" to Queen Elizabeth, we heard a pair of contrapuntal numbers, the second fittingly entitled "Il Nodo di Gordio" (The Gordian Knot).

The second half comprised Byrd and Dowland. Actually, Byrd left no original lute music and may not have played the instrument, but many of his keyboard pieces were adapted by contemporary lutenists. Francis Cutting's version of Byrd's ineffable "Pavana Bray", as serenely unfolded by O'Dette, proved the evening's high point. A pity then, that his reading of Dowland's chromatic fantasia "Farewell" epitomised his one arguable weakness: an intermittent resort to rubato so wayward that the listener loses track of the phrasing or underlying rhythm. An evening full of subtle rewards, all the same. And by offering as encore a lucid little neo-Hindemith minuet from a 1947 sonata by Johann Nepomuk David, O'Dette nicely hinted at what might yet be done with the lute.

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