Monday, March 24, 2008

Two More in a Series

Sylvius Leopold Weiss: Complete Lute Works, Volumes 2 and 3
Robert Barto, Lute
Naxos Records, 8.553988, 8.554350


Another couple volumes of this great Naxos series of the complete works of Sylvius Weiss, a composer introduced to me on this site by my friend Shrimplate.

I couldn't pretend this review to be of much value to established fans of lute and guitar music, as I have comparatively little such music in my collection. So my impressions are at least as much--no, mostly--to do with my budding awareness of the lute as an instrument as they are about the compositions. It's relatively new territory for me, but a good fit with my preferences. As an instrument which requires its player to think in harmonic as well as melodic terms--like the piano and the organ--the lute interests me as requiring a more complete musical immersion than, say, a flute.

These releases lead me to think about the lute versus the guitar. If one goes back far enough, the two instruments seem to have diverged from a common ancestor, but the guitar has gone on to a modern ubiquity while the lute seems now much more attached to antiquity. That seems a loss to me, since with its greater number of courses (often doubled) and greater pitch range the lute seems a more ambitious instrument than the guitar.

(It bears saying that the guitar seems to have a more flexible phenotype than many other instruments; seven- and eight- and ten- and of course 12-string guitars are not uncommon. I'm reminded of the great series of Delos recordings of Paul Galbraith playing a custom-made 8-string guitar of his own specification--the "Brahms guitar"--which he holds and plays like a cello, even having a post out the bottom which rests on a resonance box.)

The guitar's ongoing prominence in classical and popular music results in it being played in a much wider variety of manners and musical styles than the lute. This longevity has resulted in traditions and vital schools of musical thought surrounding the guitar in far-flung places stretching from the present day back several centuries. The lute by contrast seems to be reliving a couple hundred years of glory from ages now long past. But I personally find the sound of the lute more pleasing to the ear, lighter and richer.

Certainly the lute shares some of the guitar's virtues: it's a salon instrument, intended to impact a small group of people in close proximity; it works well accompanying the human voice or in combination with other instruments; and the artist has a deeply intimate interface with the instrument, controlling much of its tone production in addition to voicing and phrasing. So the sounds produced are much more individual than, say, several people recording Bach on various Steinway Ds--and this is without addressing the variety of the instruments themselves, which I imagine are highly variable.

So much for my philosophical wanderings. Without knowing more about any of this than I do, it seems immediately apparent that Robert Barto is a virtuoso of the first order. There is a strong sense of musical statement, of a coherent musical mind projecting these works for us. Weiss's compositions, as I mentioned in a previous review, have the modern harmonic sensibility of Bach and Scarlatti and Handel, but they are less contrapuntally rigorous than Bach or imitative than Scarlatti, and these compositions at least sound very idiomatic to the lute. Bach's lute music is frequently heard on guitar, and so much of Bach has been transcribed for other instruments (or other genres altogether); I can't help wondering how some of Weiss's pieces would come off on guitar or a keyboard instrument. As it is, some of the movements seem technically very challenging for the lutenist.

Pleasant and impressive as these recordings are, what I have not gleaned at this stage is whether these compositions will come to have stronger individual identities than is presently the case, either the individual movements themselves or the suites. For all the variety in the lute's tonal capabilities, these pieces sound all of a certain stripe, much like Scarlatti's 550 harpsichord sonatas or Tournemire's L'orgue mystique. I suspect this is something that needs a bit of investment of time; I'm simply not familiar enough with any of it to have determined my favorites. But at this point I would have little hope of determining which movements went with which suite if my iTunes were to scramble the tracks. While that was true for me at one time with Bach's Brandenburgs as well, I wonder if I'll ever find myself passionately attached to these pieces rather than liking and admiring the sound generally.

Whatever the case, I am mesmerized by the sound--the courtly, intimate and very civilized sound.


shrimplate said...

I do not have a baroque lute, so my familiarity with Weiss arises from guitar transcriptions and recordings made by people like Barto.

While I certainly share your assessment that it would be difficult to discern exactly which individual movement might go in any of the various suites and sonatas, due to a general uniformity of style, I think that Weiss was able to create a slightly different sound-world varying by key.

His d-minor pieces sound quite different from his B-flat-major works, for example. Perhaps some of that is due to the way the notes lie on the fretboard of the instrument.

Goran Sollscher has recorded a few Weiss peices on his custom-made 11-string Georg Bolin guitar, whose strings correspond to the 11 courses of the baroque lute. It makes me yearn to here Weiss on a clavichord, harpsichord, or even a lautenwerk. Any other capable instrument, really.

I've read that Bach's sonata in A-major for violin and harpsichord is actually an arrangement of music by Weiss, and they apparently knew of one another.

wunelle said...

I'll have to pay attention to the pieces in relation to their keys.

I'll have to look up the Goran Sollscher stuff you mention.

I'm coming to think that my preference for the sound of the lute over the guitar is because of the double-stringing. I think there's a life to this sound that single-stringing lacks. It would be fun to compare the Weiss pieces back-to-back, but I know that when I listen to Bach from both Paul Galbraith and Nigel North it's North and his lute who take the day for me.

It's fun to explore these things.