A year ago, when Music’s Quill presented a program of Elizabethan consort music, I admired the decision by Timothy Burris, the lutenist who directs the ensemble (as well as the Portland Early Music series), to avoid the era’s best-known pieces in favor of music that was less frequently heard.

But I also wondered why, in bringing together some of the best composers of the time – William Lawes, Thomas Morley, Daniel Batchelar and Anthony Holborne, among them – the group bypassed John Dowland, the greatest lutenist-composer of them all, and arguably England’s most renowned composer before Henry Purcell.

Perhaps Burris and company had a long-term plan. The concert Music’s Quill played on Saturday evening in the chapel at St. Luke’s Cathedral was devoted entirely to Dowland. And rather than mix and match from among Dowland’s published collections of songs and consort pieces, or his plentiful solo lute works that have survived in manuscript sources and compediums, the group played his “Second Book of Songs” (1600) in its entirety. For a Dowland fancier, it was a treat.

Music’s Quill is a flexible group that expands and contracts along with the music’s demands, so it’s rarely heard twice in the same configuration. On Saturday, it included tenor Timothy Neill Johnson, Todd Borgerding, on the viola da gamba, and Burris on lute. That was, certainly, a standard configuration in Elizabethan times, but it also created an interesting challenge.

Unlike modern works, which are scored for specific combinations of voices and instruments, Dowland’s song books are set up for maximum flexibility and practicality, to be performed by whatever forces are available – a single singer and a lutenist, or as many as five singers, each with an independent vocal line – a configuration that yields an exquisite harmonic texture.

Alternatively, they could be played instrumentally, by groups of viols or winds, usually with a lute at the heart of the ensemble.

Music’s Quill bore this flexibility in mind, so while most of the 22 songs were sung by Johnson, with Burris and Borgerding accompanying, several were reconfigured. Borgerding sang a second vocal line, while also holding down the gamba part, in “Sorrow, Stay,” “O Sweet Woods,” “Fine Knacks For Ladies” and “Humor Say What Mak’st Thou Here,” and Johnson and Borgerding sang “White As Lilies” and “Faction That Ever Dwells” as unaccompanied vocal duets.

Other thoughtful arranging touches included the group’s decision to drop the gamba line on the final verse of “O Sweet Woods,” creating a sudden shift in texture, or occasionally taking a verse instrumentally, as Burris and Borgerding did midway through “Come Ye Heavy States of Night.”

Burris’ decision to strum the chordal passages in the accompaniment to “Fine Knacks For Ladies,” rather than plucking them, as lutenists more typically do, also worked nicely.

For the most part, the ensemble played the songs in the order they appear in the “Second Book.”

An exception was the players’ decision to move the closing instrumental work, “Dowland’s Adieu,” well up the playlist, probably to break up the textural sameness. Another was to move the final song, “Humor Say What Mak’st Thou Here,” to the start of the second half. That let the trio close the concert on a comparatively lively note, with “Clear or Cloudy, Sweet as April Showering,” one of the few songs in the set not bathed in Dowland’s signature melancholia.

As for that melancholia, the “Second Book” has some of Dowland’s best examples, starting with the opening song, “I Saw My Lady Weep,” and its immediate successor, “Flow My Tears” – the vocal version of Dowland’s most renowned piece, in his day, “Lachrimae” (“Tears”), which exists in numerous versions for consort and solo lute.

Johnson was in fine voice, and brought an appealing expressive fluidity to the songs through his careful shaping of dynamics and vocal color, and his flawless projection of the texts.

Burris and Borgerding were in superb form as well. For Burris especially, Dowland – a virtuoso lutenist – offered plenty to work with, and except for a couple of fleeting flat notes (it appeared that a string had gone out of tune) in “Dowland’s Adieu,” he aced them easily.

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

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