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Bach, Weiss & the lute

[I] "Bach & Weiss"
Johannes Pramsohler, violinac; Jadran Duncumb, lutebc
rec: Jan 15, 2015b & Jan 28 - 29, 2016ac, Toblach, Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel (Gustav-Mahler-Saal)
Audax - ADX13706 (© 2017) (77'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/J
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Partita for violin in d minor (BWV 1004)a; Johann Sebastian BACH / Silvius Leopold WEISS (1687-1750): Suite for violin and lute in A (BWV 1025) (ed. J Pramsohler/J Duncumb)b; Silvius Leopold WEISS: Suite for lute in a minor (SWV 42/43)c

[II] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): "Bach Reimagines Bach"
William Carter, lute
rec: August 25 - 27, 2014, East Woodhay (Berkshire), St Martin's Church
Linn Records - CKD 445 (© 2017) (66'27")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata in g minor (BWV 1001) (arr Johann Christian Weyrauch/William Carter); Suite in E (BWV 1006a); Suite in g minor (BWV 995)


Bach and the lute - that is a complicated affair, which raises many questions, that to date have not been solved. Bach's oeuvre includes seven pieces for lute, catalogued as BWV 995 to 1000 and BWV 1006a. Tim Crawford, in his article on Bach's lute music in the Oxford Composer Companion on Bach (ed. Malcolm Boyd; 1999) writes that "some of these [lute pieces] raise questions about the composer's intended instrumentation, and all of them present textual or technical problems for both editor and performer".

Scholars and performers have come up with several solutions. One of them is that Bach's lute pieces were intended for the lute-harpsichord (Lautenwerk), a keyboard instrument with a sound of the lute. Others believe that Bach expected the lute virtuosos of his time, several of which he knew personally, would be able to make the necessary adjustments. A third option, as mentioned by Crawford, is that Bach's lute works were intended for a type of lute, which is different from the instruments of the time we know. Crawford considers this suggestion "unlikely".

Part of the problem is that we don't know to what extent Bach was familiar with the lute. There seems to be unanimity that he did not play the instrument himself. Crawford writes that "Bach was extremely knowledgeable about the instruments available to him" and considering that the lute tradition was still alive in his time "it would have been natural for Bach to draw upon it". In the liner-notes to their recording Johannes Pramsohler and Jadran Duncumb write at length about the longest piece in their programme, the Suite in A (BWV 1025) and state that "Bach had at best a superficial knowledge of the lute's technical capabilities (...). It is dubious to us that he could have grasped the nature of a lute piece from looking at the tablature (...)". William Carter takes a rather different stance in this matter. In the liner-notes to his disc "Bach reimagines Bach" he writes: "Bach (...) lets his musical thoughts develop however he likes and then expects the player (or singer) to work to express them. Forkel was very aware of this and emphasized just how free Bach was of worrying about the constraints of instruments." His basic view is that Bach's music is first of all Bach: "The music is difficult and unidiomatic because Bach often is". In its consequence his view is most close to the second option Crawford mentioned in his article: it is up to the performer to adapt the music to the possibilities of his instrument.

One of the lutenists Bach knew personally was Silvius Leopold Weiss. He was a member of the Dresden court chapel and a celebrity in his own time. Bach clearly admired him and must also have considered him a kindred soul, as in Weiss' oeuvre counterpoint is as important as in Bach's own. Weiss' visit to the Bach household in 1739 is well documented, and at this occasion Bach and Weiss should have competed in improvising, according to Johann Friedrich Reichardt. It seems likely that the contacts between the two masters have resulted in the birth of the Suite in A, which opens the programme which Pramsohler and Duncumb recorded.

This piece is surrounded by mystery, though. As I wrote it is discussed at length in the booklet to their recording. It is beyond the scope of this review to summarize it here; the booklet is available for download (see the header) and I advise anyone interested in the matter to read it. The piece has come down to us in a copy by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach of 1749, which calls it a Trio for obbligato keyboard and violin and attributes it to his father. However, the keyboard part is identical with a lute suite from a Dresden manucript, entirely devoted to music by Weiss. It has been assumed that Bach transcribed a lute suite by the latter and added a violin part. But that doesn't solve all the problems, because in some respects the suite is uncharacteristic of Weiss: "[Playing] through movements such as the Courante, Menuet and Sarabande especially, one is struck by how little they display of the composer's gift for melody and sense of fun and virtuosity. (...) The Sarabande and Menuet (...) are strikingly unvaried rhythmically and bare melodically".

Taking all things into account, the performers decided to record a version of their own, in the scoring for violin and obbligato lute. For the latter they took the lute part in the Dresden source as their starting point. The violin part is played as it appears in CPE Bach's copy. The main concern for the performers was to create a good balance between the two instruments, as the violin is rather loud and the lute comparatively soft. This can only be achieved in that the violinist restricts the dynamic possibilities of his instrument. The result is convincing, even though the violin still has the upper hand. This version is quite interesting, and a useful alternative to the recordings with harpsichord and violin. It needs to be added that pieces for lute with a melody instrument and bass were not uncommon at the time. Examples are the lute trios by Philippo Martino.

The rest of the programme is divided among the two artists. Duncumb delivers a fine performance of a Suite in a minor by Weiss, in which he combines a rhetorical interpretation with flair and rhythmic finesse. The bourrée, which includes some strongly chromatic episodes, is particularly expressive. One can hear Duncumb breathe, which some listeners might find problematic. It didn't bother me; it creates a sense of intimacy, as if the player performs just for you.

Pramsohler decided to perform what is a true pièce de résistance among violinists, Bach's Partita in d minor for violin solo, which ends with the famous ciaccona. He is up to stiff competition, but technically he is second to none, and his interpretation has clear individual traits. That comes especially to the fore in his choice of tempo in the giga and the ciaccona. Pramsohler's performance of the giga is the fastest I have ever heard. In my opinion it is too fast: it leaves the listener breathless, and exactly that is the problem - the piece doesn't breathe. There is also not enough time for appropriate dynamic contrasts between good and bad notes. The ciaccona is also one of the fastest, but here the tempo remains within the range of what is acceptable. It receives an excellent performance, which can easily compete with the best in the catalogue.

William Carter recorded three pieces by Bach: two of them are from the composer's own pen, whereas the disc opens with Carter's own arrangement of the Sonata in g minor for solo violin. Carter's starting point is a lute version of the fugue made by Johann Christian Weyrauch, a close friend of Bach's, who is also responsible for the tablature versions of other lute pieces from Bach's pen (BWV 997 and 1000). The Suite in E is Bach's own arrangement of the Partita No. 3 for solo violin and has survived complete in autograph. The Suite in g minor (BWV 995) is also an arrangement of Bach's own making, this time after the Suite No. 5 in c minor (BWV 1011) for cello solo. This work has come down to us in autograph too.

These three pieces receive outstanding performances from Carter, whose relaxed style of playing is nice to listen to. Among the highlights are the fugues from BWV 1001 and 995: the various voices come out very clearly, and the playing has improvisatory traits. In some fast movements the articulation is not entirely clear: some notes are not that easy to hear. Bach's own arrangements are available in other good recordings; Carter's own arrangement of BWV 1001 is a valuable addition to the catalogue. For lovers of lute music that is enough reason to include this disc in their collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Jadran Duncumb
Johannes Pramsohler

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