Naïve has just simultaneously released two new projects of Bach
cello suites arranged for other instruments: a many-course lute called
the German theorbo, transcribed by performer Hopkinson Smith, and
the viola, transcribed by party or parties unknown and played by Antoine
Tamestit’s viola CD is an absolute treat. He plays with a lightness
and tautness that keep the quick dances bouncing, the slower movements
singing, and the baroque spirit very much alive. His Stradivarius
and baroque bow produce gorgeous tones, dark but sweet, and Tamestit
himself is one of our finest violists and I loved his Berlioz
. It’s informative to compare his timings in the suites
to Hopkinson Smith: No. 1 is four minutes faster; No. 3 is six, a
joyful, exuberant performance that nevertheless doesn’t shortchange
the sarabande. I do wish the booklet told us who had made the transcriptions;
Maxim Rysanov, another superb violist, plays versions by Simon Rowland-Jones.
Rysanov also plays with modern bow and strings and a fuller, richer,
more “romantic” sound versus Tamestit’s sprightly
times and fresh phrases. I wouldn’t be without either one.
Hopkinson Smith’s playing on theorbo is more patricianly, more
sedate. This is in part because of the instrument, which affords more
room for chords and allows the performer more time to linger between
notes. It’s also because of Smith’s temperament, I think,
one which sees this music as regal and timeless rather than spontaneous
and in-the-moment. Quoth the performer in his booklet notes, “The
tempos may occasionally be somewhat of a surprise to listeners….with
the resonance and fuller harmonies of the German theorbo,” there
is “no need to rush through. The silence beyond the music is
[a] constant friend.”
The difference is most noticeable in the Third Suite, where Smith
focuses deeply on the music’s poetry and Tamestit simply sounds
very happy to be alive. Personally, I prefer Tamestit’s vision
of the music, which is more clearly influenced by the period-instrument
movement of recent years with its fleet tempos and liveliness. But
that’s a matter of taste; they’re playing very different
instruments, literally speaking playing different music even, and
Smith has great dignity and poise. Dignity is an especially good word
for his noble but restrained way with the emotion of the Second Suite.
It’s a mystery to me why Naïve’s production is so
different between the two CDs. Tamestit’s album gets a full-color
booklet with lavish design work and indeed the track-listing alone
goes on for six (!) pages. Hopkinson Smith has to slum it in black
and white, though he writes his own excellent essay about the music
and the decision to label this instrument, advocated by Silvius Weiss
for his sonatas, a “German theorbo”.
Both volumes will appeal strongly for Bach enthusiasts and I have
enjoyed them both considerably. Smith’s second volume is already
released, although I’ll confess to being more eager for Tamestit’s.
His way with Bach suits me very well indeed.
Masterwork Index: Bach