Music’s Quill, the flexible early music ensemble led by lutenist Timothy Burris, has shown itself to be comfortable, and persuasive, in a broad repertory that runs from the late Medieval through the Baroque eras, and in the various national styles that arose during that five-century period. But within that, the group has a special affinity for the music of Elizabethan England, a rich repertory, suffused with a delicious current of melancholy, offset by a lively, playful amorous side.

Reasonable listeners can disagree about who the greatest Elizabethan composer was. A good case could be made for William Byrd, on the strength of the breadth of his output, both sacred and secular. But John Dowland has his partisans as well. Though his output did not match the variety of Byrd’s – largely because Byrd had a court position, something Dowland sought unsuccessfully all his life – Dowland was the greatest lutenist of the age, and England’s greatest song composer before Purcell.

Last season, Music’s Quill devoted an evening to Dowland’s “Second Book of Songs” (1600), giving beautifully shaped accounts of the book’s 22 pieces. On Saturday evening, the same musicians returned to the small, round chapel in St. Luke’s Cathedral with that work’s predecessor, the “First Book of Songs” (1597).

For me, the “First Book” is the best of Dowland’s four published song collections. Like the “Second Book,” it includes 21 songs and a lute work. Granted, the “Second Book” includes Dowland’s signature piece, “Flow My Tears,” the vocal version of his “Lachrymae Pavan.” But the “First Book” is packed with melodically rich, harmonically adventurous, lyrically clever songs about love (mostly unrequited) and death, the Elizabethans’ favorite preoccupations.

Many are still in the repertories of singers beyond the early music world – among them, “Unquiet Thoughts,” “Can She Excuse My Wrongs,” “If My Complaints Could Passions Move,” “Come Again” and “Come, Heavy Sleep,” the last of which is the basis of Benjamin Britten’s extraordinary solo guitar work, “Nocturnal” (1963).

For anyone in need of a refresher on the scoring conventions of the day, Dowland’s collections were printed as “table books,” with as many as five melody lines and a lute accompaniment, each printed facing a different direction so that performers sitting around the table could easily read one of the parts. The performing forces were whoever was available: A song could be performed by a lutenist and one singer, five singers taking one melody line each, or instrumentally by groups of gamba or recorder players, or even a keyboardist, working from the lute and top vocal line.

Music’s Quill adopted the same configuration that worked so well last year, with tenor Timothy Neill Johnson accompanied by Burris on lute and Todd Borgerding on viola da gamba. For the most part, these were straightforward readings, each song presented with all its verses (performers sometimes drop one or two), and with often subtle ornamentation providing variety along the way.

Johnson, interestingly, performed most of the concert seated between Burris and Borderding, creating a closer sense of ensemble than is typical when a singer stands, yet sacrificing nothing in tone or vocal power. He also brought a fine sense of drama to the proceedings, endowing his brisk account of “If My Complaints Could Passions Move” with an energy that added emotional weight to those complaints. At the other end of the expressive spectrum, he brought a sublimely despondent sensibility and sound to “Go Crystal Tears” and an exquisite sense of resignation to “Come, Heavy Sleep.”

Other pieces stood out for their interpretive inventiveness. The book’s lute work, “My Lord Chamberlaine His Galliard,” appears with the instruction “for two to play on one lute.” Instead, Burris and Borgerding shared the honors, with Borgerding plucking (rather than bowing) the melody line on the gamba.

Borgerding also took a solo in “Now, O Now, I Needs Must Part,” taking a verse for an appealing, improvisation on the song’s melody. And Johnson was at his most daring in a reading of “Come Again” that began more slowly than is typical, but unfolded with a rhythmic flexibility that let him convey, with a visceral immediacy, the shifting passions and amorous enticements of the text.

Burris and company have not committed to a full Dowland cycle, but there are only two more books – the “Third Book of Songs” (1603) and “A Pilgrim’s Solace” (1612) – and about five concerts’ worth of solo lute works. That could take us to the 400th anniversary of Dowland’s death, in 2026.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

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