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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

All right. When you think of the rock star Sting, refined Elizabethan music might not come to mind - until now. The rock star has released Songs Of The Labyrinth. It's a new CD of music by John Dowland, one of the most important English composers of the Elizabethan era centuries ago.

This is a collection of songs for voice and lute usually performed by highly trained classical musicians, and Sting admits he's not one of them. So far, though, the CD is getting pretty good reviews, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: It turns out Sting has been haunted By John Dowland's music for more than 20 years. His interest in the composer grew even more intense when he was introduced to Edin Karamazov, a lutanist from Bosnia. The two spent about a year delving into Dowland's music together.

(Soundbite of song from CD “Songs Of The Labyrinth”)

STING (Singer): (Singing) Can't she excuse my wrongs with virtue's cloak. Shall I call her good when she grows unkind? (Unintelligible) which vanish into smoke. Must I braise the leaves where no fruit I find.

BLAIR: Even though these songs were written long before Billboard charts and Top 40, Stings says he's treating them like pop songs. He called Dowland the first singer/songwriter we know of.

STING: You know, he kind of invented the form of the alienated singer/songwriter. He wrote 88 songs and, you know, I'm singing them as I do. I'm not singing them in operatic style because I can't do that. I'm singing them in my own fashion.

BLAIR: And sometimes over-dubbing his voice to create a one-man magical ensemble.

(Soundbite of song from CD “Songs Of The Labyrinth”)

STING: (Singing) Was I so (unintelligible) that I made not a sigh unto those high joys which she holds for me. As they are high, so high is my desire. If she this denied what can granted be?

BLAIR: It makes sense that the king of pain is attracted to John Dowland. The composer is perhaps best known for hypnotic songs that are full of anguish, with titles like Flow My Tears, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, and Sorrow Stay. Most modern recordings of Dowland's songs sound something like this.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ELLEN HARGIS (Singer): (Singing) Sorrow, sorrow stay. Lend true repentant tears…

BLAIR: This is singer Ellen Hargis with lutanist Paul O'Dette. O'Dette recorded Dowland's complete works for lute, a five CD box set, but he doesn't bear Sting any ill-will for taking the spotlight. Just the opposite.

Mr. PAUL O'DETTE (Lutanist): I think it's fantastic to have a famous pop star performing 16th century music and presenting it to a much wider audience than those of us in the small early music world would ever be able to reach.

BLAIR: Dowland often wrote very long vocal lines, so his lute songs are extremely challenging even for the most accomplished singers. O'Dette thinks Sting does a good job of emphasizing the text but on some songs he falls short.

Mr. O'DETTE: The weaknesses on the CD vocally are the long, slow pieces which require a certain amount of vocal refinement, which are not a natural part of his repertoire.

(Soundbite of song “Flow My Tears”)

STING (Singer): (Singing) Flow all my tears, fall from your springs…

BLAIR: Songs of the Labyrinth is being released by Deutsche Grammophon. It's an example of classical crossover, a broad term that would include Paul McCartney's recent work for choir and orchestra or Andrea Bocelli singing Besame Mucho. These recordings that are neither pop nor pure classical pose a bit of a dilemma for music critics. For example, what standards do they apply?

Mr. ERIC GIBSON (Arts Editor, The Wall Street Journal): It was an instant head snapper, the combination of Sting and this very distinguished classical label.

BLAIR: Eric Gibson is the arts editor for The Wall Street Journal. He wasn't sure who should review it, his rock or classical critic?

Mr. GIBSON: And I sort of went back and forth, sent a few e-mails out probing the knowledge base and sensibility and disposition of a few of my writers. And after a few days I came to the conclusion that it was more important to have someone who was deeply familiar with Sting rather than having someone who is deeply familiar with John Dowland.

BLAIR: The piece that ran in The Wall Street Journal said the songs have a refreshing urgency. Overall, the reviews of Songs of the Labyrinth have been mixed. One reviewer said Sting sounds stilted. Another, Norman Lebrecht, known as a tough classical critic, called it both coherent and credible for the most part.

(Soundbite of song “Come Again”)

STING: (Singing) Come again! Sweet love doth now invite thy graces that refrain…

BLAIR: Some of the Dowland songs seem very suited to Sting. Joking, he says this one, Come Again, is the first single.

STING: It's full of passion and love and lust for life. And I was immediately struck by its pop hooks, you know, it's just like a pop song.

(Soundbite of song, “Come Again”)

STING: (Singing) To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die, with thee again in sweetest symphony.

BLAIR: Sting says this project has been a huge stretch for him. Eric Gibson says that in itself is worth noting.

MR. GIBSON: It's too easy just to keep doing the same old, same old. I mean I love the Rolling Stones, but, you know, you go to a concert this year and you go to a concert five years ago and you're going be hearing the same material.

BLAIR: That's not likely to be the case with Sting.

STING: My intention is to evolve as a singer as I get older. I mean I just sung with Tony Bennett on his 80th birthday and he's still evolving too, so it's possible.

BLAIR: Sting has also been learning to play the lute. On the new CD he even plays a couple of duets with Edin Karamazov. The songs are still a challenge to sing. He says playing the Lute? That's diabolical.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can find out why Sting considers John Dowland quintessentially English and you can hear more Songs of the Labyrinth at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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