Saturday, September 1, 2007

Bach on the Lute: Paul O'Dette

BACH (J.S.). Lute Works, vol.I
Paul O'Dette
Harmonia Mundi

  • Lute Suite in g minor, BWV 995 (transcribed from BWV 1011, Cello suite No. 5 in c minor)
  • Violin Sonata No. 1 in g minor, BWV 1001
  • Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006a
Noted lutenist Paul O'Dette has served as Professor of Lute and Director of Early Music at the Eastman School of Music in New York since 1976, and his discography encompasses a couple dozen recordings, including the complete works of John Dowland on five CDs.

This welcome CD features O'Dette playing music originally written by Bach for different instruments. Several of these Bach pieces, especially from the violin works, will be familiar to listeners from other versions: the Prelude to the third violin partita, for example, is more popularly know as the Sinfonia to Cantata BWV 29, and the fugue of the BWV 1001 Violin Sonata was famously recycled by Bach for the organ Prelude and Fugue (d minor, BWV 539).

This seems the right direction to transcribe the music of a long-dead composer: from (comparatively) simple to more complex. The limited polyphonic capabilities of the violin and cello for which these works were originally conceived make the pieces work very well on the more polyphonic lute, since the harmonic and contrapuntal structures were conceived for a more restrictive palette; nothing is lost in the translation. Transcribing Bach's organ works for lute (or, even moreso, for solo violin) would require leaving out so much that a wholly different piece would result.

As it is, these works come off really splendidly in the bargain, though they are a bit different than their originals. The sound of the lute, brilliantly recorded by Harmonia Mundi, is intimate and nuanced, and O'Dette lingers over details in the counterpoints and harmonic statements with a tastefully thoughtful rubato, and the effect is of having an eloquent spokesman for these pieces sitting before you in your living room. Again we find that there is no instrument on which Bach does not sound good, a testament to his versatility.

Though these transcriptions are not as genre-daring, I put this CD alongside the splendid disc of Bach organ works transcribed for viols released last year by Fretwork.

Highly recommended.

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