Melancholy Grace is a poetic collection of keyboard music from the 16th and 17th centuries by composers from Italy, the Netherlands, England and Germany. The French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau has conceived the album as a sombre, but eloquent dialogue between two contrasting voices: melancholy conveyed through chromaticism and melancholy conveyed through the musical expression of tears and weeping. Among the eight ‘chromatic’ composers are Frescobaldi, Luigi Rossi, Luzzaschi and Sweelinck, while the ‘weeping’ composers are Dowland, Bull, Gibbons, Valente and Scheidemann (who has an anonymous piece attributed to him).

Dowland’s Lachrimae Verae (True Tears) closes the programme, but in some senses forms the conceptual starting point for the Melancholy Grace. As Jean Rondeau explains in his note for the album:

“In 1596 John Dowland sowed a melodic seed … cultivating fame for a song that would have considerable impact in England throughout the period of burgeoning musical activity that coincided with the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and the post-Elizabethan era. This tune also made a strong impression across Europe, particularly in Flanders and Germany on composers such as Sweelinck and Scheidemann, and it went on to influence modern creators like Britten, who, more than three centuries later, echoed it in his Reflections on a Song of John Dowland. This song is an emblem, a signature. Its title is ‘Flow, my tears’. It is Dowland’s Lachrimae. A musical shape repeated, rewritten, improvised, a melody embedded in the creative collective. It will not fade – it lingers and resonates …” In addition to Dowland’s own keyboard piece (one of a set of Seaven Teares that are musically linked to the song ‘Flow, my tears’) the album contains two stately dances inspired by his musical weeping: the anonymous pavane attributed to Scheidemann and another pavane by Gibbons.

Each distinct voice in the dialogue of Melancholy Grace finds expression through a different instrument: a 16th century Italian virginal (a compact harpsichord) for the ‘tears’ and a modern replica of an 18th century harpsichord for the ‘chromatic’ pieces.

“There are two sound-worlds,” continues Jean Rondeau, “…each belonging to a different instrument: a large Italian-style harpsichord made by Philippe Humeau in 2007 after an anonymous early-18th-century model, and a Florentine arpicordo, or polygonal virginal, produced around 1575 by an unknown maker, possibly Francesco Poggi. Listeners will immediately notice the marked difference between the timbres of these two instruments. While the strings are plucked in both, their design is clearly distinct, each with its specific action and particular shape. As a result the sound they produce defines two very distinct acoustical territories. Each in its own way has tremendous charm and striking emotional power, and they resonate across time … Alternating between them is like having lines spoken by two characters – a simple change of narrator and point of view, rather than moving from one chapter or one volume to another. In doing so, I thought it apt to accentuate this change with the return of a ritornello – as was the custom between each act of an opera at that time: the Ballo alla Polacha by Giovanni Picchi, heard on tracks 6, 10 and 15 [of the 18 on the album].”

Rondeau also points out that he has not adopted equal temperament for the recording: in other words the practice of tuning each octave of the instrument as 12 equal semitones, as became standard in the 18th and 19th centuries: “My use of different temperaments – all unequal, depending on the piece, its key and therefore its meaning – has a considerable effect on my interpretation and is strongly connected to the various composers’ way of writing. This contributes greatly to the intensity of the emotions I feel while playing these pieces … My choices are made from the perspective of an assiduous player rather than that of a purist, never governed by anything other than the music itself. It would make no sense to use an equal or unequal temperament in a work it did not suit: the expressive power of the music would be completely distorted. That would result in transcription or translation, even transmutation.”