BACH: Works for Lute, Vol. 1 – Jason Vieaux, guitar – Azica

by | Jul 31, 2009 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BACH: Works for Lute, Vol. 1 – Jason Vieaux, guitar – Azica ACD-71250, 70:05 *****:

Bach’s interest in the lute waxed and waned depending on his compositional circumstances. Although he was a master of keyboard instruments there is no direct evidence that he was a competent lutenist. He owned a lute and may have played it occasionally. Most significantly, Bach owned a pair of specially modified harpsichords called a Lautenwerck which was a hybrid keyboard and lute. It combined the sonorities of both by incorporating ranks of the metal strings of a harpsichord and the gut strings of a lute. There is some evidence that he may have composed some of his lute pieces on this unusual keyboard but that information remains ambiguous. In any case, only one of Bach’s solo works associated with the lute, the Suite in G minor BWV 995 is definitely written for the instrument. All of his other pieces identified with it are obscure as to their ultimate instrumental disposition.

This beautifully played CD contains some of Bach’s finest solo works historically assumed to have been written for the lute. Certainly they possess a different texture and dynamic range than his solo keyboard works. The music itself is much more intimate, possessing that characteristic innigkeit or poignant intimacy of feeling that would become so popular later on in the 18th Century during the era known as Sturm und Drang. Without question these are indispensable works in any lutenist’s or guitarist’s repertoire.

Jason Vieaux plays these works on guitar (transposing them as needed) which changes the sonority of these pieces. Without the lute’s more metallic and slightly more retiring sound, the dynamic range of these works is significantly enlarged. The increased suppleness of tone provided by guitar strings is also a factor in expanding the sheer presence of these pieces. In much the same way that playing Bach on a modern keyboard changes the nature of the piece, so it is on this recording. But guitarist Jason Vieaux possesses an almost uncanny sense of touch, which enables him to maximize the best aspects of his instrument. He varies his dynamics so skillfully that much of the lute’s intimacy is still present along with the guitar’s roundness of tone and reverberant harmonics.

Vieaux plays the G minor Lute Suite BWV 995, which is an arrangement of Bach’s Solo Cello Suite No. 5, and the more vibrant Suite in E minor BWV 996, which contains the famous Bourree: Jethro Tull’s theme song for many years. These are German instrumental suites which are similar to French suites in that they contain a dignified Prelude followed by a series of dances. Both of these works, as played by Vieaux, are a joy to listen to for any Bach aficionado. They contain all of the great composer’s mastery of the dance form. Vieaux’s technique is nearly flawless, even in the most complex passages. He negotiates Bach’s contrapuntal lines while employing a smooth legato that lets each melodic line breath.

The Suite in C minor BWV 997 is a more somber piece whose second movement is a lengthy fugue. Vieaux’s playing is particularly skillful when negotiating the often fearsome intricacies of a Bach fugue. One never loses the musical logic because Vieaux skillfully varies the dynamics as if providing a road map. The final work is the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat major, BWV 998. It creates a slightly more academic atmosphere because of its theoretical use as a teaching tool. This is the technical Bach and Vieaux’s playing is appropriately restrained.

The guitar sounds close and it is warmly recorded, with each soft harmonic allowed to bloom. The Azica engineers have done a superb job. This is a model for recording the guitar in stereo.

— Mike Birman

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