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New Bach Recordings: Music for Lute-Harpsichord

available at Amazon
Bach, Music for Lute-
Harpsichord, E. Farr

(released on July 29, 2008)
Naxos 8.570470-71

Online scores:
BWV 995 | BWV 996 | BWV 997 | BWV 998 | BWV 999 | BWV 1000 (transcribed from BWV 1001/ii) | BWV 1006a | BWV 964 | BWV 990
Bach's works for lute are one of those odd corners of the Baroque corpus, another example of Bach's encyclopedic musical interests, even for instruments that were on their way out of fashion. Certainly Bach was acquainted with lutenists at most stages of his career, but he did not own one and conceived his music for it mostly through the medium of the keyboard. Not long after the new complete set of the Bach lute works by Paul O'Dette met with my approval, this recording crossed my desk, with keyboard specialist Elizabeth Farr playing them on a Lautenwerk, or lute-harpsichord. We know that Bach owned two of them, keyboard instruments with gut (and some brass) strings that imitated the sound of the lute, and that he appears to have composed at least some of his "lute pieces" to be played on it. He used keyboard notation instead of lute tablature, and some of the pieces are actually impossible to play on a lute without some creative adaptation.

No historical examples of the instrument have survived from the 18th century, but builders have made attempts to reconstruct them. Historical instrument builder and fellow Michigan State University alumnus Keith Hill designed the Lautenwerk heard on these two discs according to the specifications Bach recorded for one of the instruments in his collection (copied by Jacob Adlung in 1768). Some of the pieces are arrangements by Bach of other works -- a cello suite, a violin partita, and a violin sonata, and they do not necessarily work as idiomatically for this instrument. A delightful piece that is quite new to me is BWV 990, a C major sarabande that Bach reportedly adapted from Lully's Bellérophon (although I have yet to find it in the score), followed by 15 partite, or variations, the last four of which are a mini-dance suite. Farr plays all of this music with a delicious sensibility, embellishing gracefully and providing plenty of variation among registrations between repeats and sections, giving the impression of performance by a consort of instruments.



kishnevi said...

I have to dissent. The completeness maven in me does not regret the purchase, but listening to this recording, I felt rather underwhelmed. The lautenwerk sounded to me neither like fish nor fowl, but something in the nature of a clunky harpsichord--maybe that's why it did not catch hold. Even though Bach probably did compose the suites for this intstrument, I think they come out far better on an actual lute. I've now filed in it in the cabinet with the other CDs to be played only if I get extremely bored.

Also, the O'Dette CD is merely volume 1 (and titled so). Volume 2, if it's been recorded, has not yet been released, at least according to Harmonia Mundi's website.

Charles T. Downey said...

Divergence of opinion is noted -- and always welcomed. The instrument is clunky -- by its nature, I think -- and Farr exaggerates the style brisé qualities of her playing to accentuate the kinship with or imitation of the lute. I found the sound endlessly interesting, largely because of its being unclassifiable (that is, being neither fish nor fowl).

As for the O'Dette complete recording, I suppose I should have specified that it was not yet complete, only projected as so, but anyone who follows the link will see that for himself.