The pleasant yet intense lute music of 17th century England shapes the body of the most delicate experiment in Sting’s musical life. In the songs of John Dowland, he has found an Elizabethan precedent for his own dark and sorrowful balladry that he can capably command with his (untrained) tenor. “Songs From the Labyrinth,” the title of his recent Deutsche Grammophon album, worked better live in the recital format than as a recording. It’s a guess, but judging from his vocals alone, Sting entered Disney Hall with a humbler spirit than he did when he ventured into the studio.
Sting, long an assimilator of musical styles with varied lineages, plays the Dowland material (published between 1597 and 1603) with relative straightforwardness. It’s different from any other context in which the singer has been heard before; backed by a single instrument and, on occasion, an eight-member male chorus, the works require a compact interpretation and Sting heeds that command well, particularly maintaining the melancholy the music calls for. There are songs, “Come Again” being the prime example, that have a structure and lyric that remarkably fit his wheelhouse and he can’t resist adding an extra heaping of Sting-ness to the interpretation.
On equal footing with Sting is his accompanist, Edin Karamazov. Playing lutes of varying sizes, Karamazov’s string work was spry and bright, a bit more contrasting between instrument and voice than is on the written page. When Sting joined in as second lutenist on “Fantasy” and “La Rossignol,” the instrument’s gorgeous timbre received a sterling showcase.
Short program (75 minutes) had the added benefit of a history lesson as Sting read passages from letters and then provided a peek at how other music might sound when filtered through the lute. The duo shed some of the blues yet retained the darkness on Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail”; a slowed version of the Police’s “Message in a Bottle” was a divine rendition.
Concert was a one-nighter for the U.S. Sting and Karamazov will deliver the same program in 15 cities in Europe between Feb. 18 and March 12.