The music of John Dowland essentially embodies the lute. An almost exact contemporary of Shakespeare, a life from the mid 16th to early 17th centuries, Dowland was a Renaissance lutenist. He performed on the lute, and wrote for the lute. His performing was the cream of the proverbial crop during this time period, and, as almost any of the original revolutionaries did on their own instruments, he wrote much of what he performed. Also, if you don't know what a lute is, think acoustic guitar with more strings, and that'll get you in the ball park.
He's known primarily today for his melancholy songs, most of which were written and performed with lute accompaniment. Some of these he eventually turned into solo lute songs. Don't let that fool you into thinking that he couldn't write a happy tune, though, because the first song on the first disc of this CD comes right out of the gate with some excitement and joy, though he was the master of the slow thoughtful melody. This set includes all of his solo lute music. 95% of these songs are dance forms. Galliards, Pavanes, Almains (Allemandes), and a couple marches are all included as well as his 7 fantasies and solo lute songs.
This music is not harmonically complex in the way that Brahms was. This is Renaissance music, it has a flow directed more by the line of the melody than the harmony supporting it. Do not get this if you're expecting to hear a Mahler symphony on the lute. This music is perfect though for those who love nothing more than listening to Bach's solo violin or cello works. Perfect for the person who loves to sit and listen to traditional folk dance music on a guitar, banjo or fiddle. These forms were almost all originally dance forms and on these CDs their origins are clear, if they tend to be slower dances.
Nigel North is easily one of the world's best lutenists today. These performances are fantastic and do great justice to Dowland's music. Dowland was the peak of talent in his time, and I wouldn't be surprised if North is better than he was. You hear the music on these discs, and little if any extraneous noise that you sometimes hear on solo guitar work (I'd describe it better, except that I don't play a stringed instrument). He plays a period lute constructed exactly after the ones of Dowland's time and performs with period appropriate embellishments and style. For Dowland's music, there isn't any other request I could make. I haven't stopped listening to these CDs since I bought them a couple of weeks ago, and these aren't the only CDs of his I own.
Feel free to look through the other reviews of these CDs as individually sold, last I looked every single review was a 5 star review. They are all well deserved. Also, speaking financially, you should purchase this set. NAXOS is a great label for cheap CDs, they tend to hover around $8 - $12 for single CDs, and when you've got these four discs for under $20, it's a deal. On a personal note, I find this music to be extremely relaxing and a great listen after a hard day's work.
***Edit: Whatever the price is currently for this set, it was under $20 when I purchased it.