Discs of lute music don't attract as much attention as recordings of orchestral or vocal repertoire. Lutenists rarely appear on the big stages, and their concerts are not that extensively advertised. That makes their performances easy to overlook. That is a shame, as for a long time lutenists belonged to the upper echelon of the music guild and were held in high esteem. That is certainly the case with Silvius Leopold Weiss, the most brilliant lute player in Germany in the first half of the 18th century, and for many years a member of the famous court chapel in Dresden. Among his colleagues were such celebrities as the violinist Pisendel, the double bass player and composer Zelenka and the flautist Buffardin.
The Naxos project to record Weiss's complete output for the lute bears witness to his quality as a player as most of his sonatas were probably written for his own use or as a result of his improvisations. They also give an indication of his skills as a teacher as a part of his oeuvre has come down to us thanks to various pupils. That is the case, for instance, with the Sonata No. 96 in G
which is part of a manuscript which is preserved in Moscow. It includes pieces which Weiss' pupil Timofei Bielogradsky probably brought back with him when he returned from his stay in Germany. In Russia he enjoyed a high status as a lute player. This sonata is the least technically demanding of the music on this disc. It shows much more restraint in embellishments which otherwise are such an important part of Weiss's music. That doesn't mean that it is uninteresting: in its relative simplicity it is most enjoyable, especially when played with such conviction as here by Robert Barto.
The disc opens with the much more ambitious Sonata No. 39 in C
, nicknamed Partita Grande
. The word partita
was often used as an alternative for the suite, and that is appropriate since the 'sonatas' by Weiss are in fact suites, opening with a prelude or an overture, which is followed by a series of dance movements. Tim Crawford in his liner-notes suggests that this sonata is a late work, probably from the 1740s. Weiss was an advocate of the mixed taste, the combination of Italian and French elements. Obviously there is a strong French influence in Weiss's lute music because of the rich tradition in playing of and composing for the lute in France in the 17th century. The Sonata in C
begins with an overture in French style, modelled after the overtures of Lully, including the characteristic dotted rhythms. This is followed by a courante and a bourrée of a strongly contrasting character. The latter has various twists and turns which are in fact typical of Weiss's highly individual style. The same can be said about the closing presto, the longest movement of this sonata. The sarabande is an example of the composer's skills in embellishing a simple melodic line.
The programme ends with the Sonata No. 30 in E flat
which could date from the late 1720s and is part of the so-called 'London' manuscript. It was copied in Prague, a city Weiss visited several times during his career. Interestingly it opens with a prelude which was later copied onto empty staves after the allemande. Crawford sees this as an indication that it was not Weiss’s practice to write down such preludes, but that he improvised them before starting with a suite. It has an improvisatory character indeed, reminiscent of the unmeasured preludes which were so popular in France in the 17th century. It is followed by a long allemande in which a figure of three repeated notes and a sequence of descending notes returns on a regular basis. The character of the gavotte is decided by a prominent motif in the bass. The last movement is called 'le sans souci' (the carefree), another reference to the French style in which character pieces played an important role, in particular since the early 18th century.
This project is a major undertaking and the ten volumes which have appeared so far have won much approval. That is understandable, first and foremost because it sheds light on the brilliance of Silvius Leopold Weiss as a player and a composer. If one listens to these recordings one starts to comprehend why he was held in such high esteem. However, it is also the playing of Robert Barto which makes this music shine. He is an eloquent story-teller who keeps his audience captivated through his excellent 'diction' and his differentiated account of the material. He is also a fine dancing master with a good sense of rhythm: if he plays a dance movement it is hard to keep your feet still.
Johan van Veen
See also review by Brian Reinhart