Thursday, December 27, 2007

Weiss, Volume 6

(sorry for another crappy picture)

Sylvius Leopold Weiss: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 6
Robert Barto, Lute
Naxos 8.555722

A blog friend has pointed me to Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750). The German Weiss was a direct contemporary of J. S. Bach, and they seem even to have met thru Bach's son Wilhelm Friedemann. The Wikipedia entry says that Weiss is history's most prolific composer for the lute, and also one of the great technical players of the instrument. I have a number of recordings of Paul O'dette and Nigel North playing John Dowland and Bach on the lute, but it shows my myopia that I'd never even heard of Sylvius Weiss before this recent introduction. But one can sample his compositions on iTunes, and after a quick listen I did the download.

Once again, Naxos comes to the rescue, with at least eight volumes now of Weiss's lute sonatas by American lutenist Robert Barto. Not all are available on iTunes, so I just randomly picked Volume Six.

It's really lovely music, exhibiting the modernity of Bach's writing, but with just a touch of the antique (which might be as much instrument as repertoire). The sound is necessarily intimate, chamber music played in a quiet, resonant space. The writing is very charming but seems less technical than Bach's; it has, to my ear, the more relaxed contrapuntal textures of Pachelbel or Telemann. But he's very melodic, and a couple times on this disc I thought we could be listening to the lute versions of lost additional Brandenburg Concertos.

The lute is pretty new territory for me. It has some obvious similarities with the guitar, of course, but it's more complex. Most lutes have more strings than a guitar, and strings are usually doubled, with each doubled unit (or "course") tuned either in unison or in octaves, depending on the individual course and the historical period of the instrument. Frets are of gut tied around the neck, rather than a guitar's imbedded metal frets. The instrument is played essentially like a guitar, it seems, but there are some idiosyncrasies: beyond the greater pitch spread from the more numerous courses, it seems much more the custom with the lute that high notes are played by selecting a higher course rather than by stopping far up on a lower string (perhaps this counts as a versatility of the guitar and explains why fewer strings / courses were needed?). This technical aspect is something new and intriguing to me.

Lutenist Robert Barto is apparently very well known in Lute circles, and this disc seems most expertly played. Naxos has given us, as ever, a first-rate recording.

I'm eager to accumulate the other volumes of the series, and expect I might have more to say about the music with increased exposure.


shrimplate said...

The top (higher-pitched) courses on a Baroque lute were generally tuned to open d-minor chords. This is called "flat tuning" because just by barring across these strings one can easily finger full chords.

It's easier to just demonstrate than to describe.

The bass courses were tuned down scale-wise, allowing open courses to use for bass lines, which frees up the fingers of the left hand a little. And it gives the instrument a really delicious resonance in the lower range.

Thanks for the tip about Lauridsen. Most of the choral music I listen to is Renaissance, so this guy is new to my ears.

Ady said...

You write very well.

wunelle said...

Thanks! (Though I evidently don't write very much lately. I expect I'll have more recordings to review over the winter.)