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Classical Album of the Week: Melancholy Lute Songs of the English Renaissance With a Twist!

January 13, 2020. At first glance, Whose Heavenly Touch throws no surprises. Here is a comprehensive, predictable set of songs by English composer John Dowland (1563-1626), complete with the most beloved titles — including "Flow, my tears," "Come Again!" and "Come away, sweet love." But wait! With a closer look and listen, some interesting curiosities emerge.?

The album features Argentinian soprano Mariana Flores and American lutenist Hopkinson Smith. Flores is a baroque specialist — the Italian masters, Monteverdi, Fresobaldi and Cavalli, are where she’s at home.

For this project, diving into Dowland, whose songs, without exception, are in English, was a first for her. Recording the album became a process of exploring the language and the ways that Dowland harnessed its colors. Over time, she fell in love with it and we have before us something exquisite, far beyond the initial technical accomplishment on her part.

At the other end of the spectrum, Hopkinson Smith (or Hoppy, as Flores affectionately calls him) is right at home in this repertoire. With a few Dowland already under his belt, Smith is confident in taking certain artistic liberties here. For example, not all songs are in their original keys — the consequence being, some passages are an octave higher or lower than usual and an arpeggio is changed here or there.

Smith goes even further in opting to present solo instrumental versions of songs typically sung by a vocalist. These choices might raise a few eyebrows among aficionados of Renaissance music but, quite rightly, Smith asserts “variety and a creative musical pragmatism were part of the spirit of the age."

That Flores and Smith collaborate regularly has clearly paid off well in this album. Whose Heavenly Touch places the voice and lute in a partnership of equals — something we can really appreciate in what is a rewarding, remarkably intimate listen.

Soprano Mariana Flores and lutenist Hopkinson Smith perform "O Sweet woods, the Delight of Solitariness."