J.S. BACH: Suite No. 1 in G Major; Suite No. 2 in d minor and Suite No. 3 in C Major – Hopkinson Smith, German Theorbo – Naïve
J.S. BACH: Suite No. 4 in B-flat Major; Suite No. 6 in D Major; Suite in g minor (Suite No. 5 in c minor) – Hopkinson Smith, Baroque lute – Naïve

by | May 2, 2014 | Classical CD Reviews

J.S. BACH: Suite No. 1 in G Major BWV 1007; Suite No. 2 in d minor BWV 1008 and Suite No. 3 in C Major BWV 1009 – Hopkinson Smith, German Theorbo – Naïve E 8937, 65:00 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

J.S. Bach’s collection of suites for solo cello stand alongside his greatest creations, monuments to his genius for musical composition. Lutenist Hopkinson Smith has transcribed the first three Bach’s Cello Suites for the German Theorbo, a large Renaissance lute. While these adaptations are not by the composer, certainly they fall into the realm of acceptability. At least that is the way I listen to them. Bach is known as a recycler of material previously composed by himself and noted for borrowing from other composers.

Smith, in his informative notes in the insert, is not shy about mentioning that some people may not like what he has done in his adaptations, but others might indeed enjoy them. Smith is a gifted musician who has done a laudable job with these transcriptions. Anyone liking the cello suites should warm to these adaptations, unless he or she has an aversion to the lute or adaptations in general.

Smith points out that there have been other adaptations on the Baroque lute plus on the French/Italian theorbo or chitarrone. Smith rejected these instruments because they did not ”…match the sound and aesthetic ideal that I find most appropriate for the first three of the six suites.” Instead Smith chose the theorbo invented and developed by Sylvius Weiss in the 1720s. Weiss was a distinguished composer and performer and his music is still heard today.

Smith decided to call Weiss’ instrument the German theorbo to clarify its difference from other lutes and theorbos. Weiss called his instrument a ‘theorbe’ with its larger body and longer strings. These physical changes produce a fuller sound for use in chamber performances and with orchestras.

Smith descibes these suites as , “…Melodious, boisterous, amazingly delicate, expansively lyrical, …[and] cleverly busy with detail in complicated figuration…” He points out that some of the tempos he adopts are different from those heard on the cello, namely slower because of the German thoerbo’s resonance and fuller harmonies.

These first three suites were recorded in 2012. The informative and comprehensive insert booklet is in English and French.


J.S. BACH: Suite No. 4 in B-flat Major BWV 1010; Suite No. 6 in D Major BWV 1012; Suite in g minor BWV 995 (Suite No. 5 in c minor BWV 1011) – Hopkinson Smith, Baroque lute – Naïve E 8938, 80:00 [Distr. By Naxos] *****: 

Lutenist Hopkinson Smith successfully completes his remarkable survey of the cello suites in his arrangements for lute of Bach’s fourth and sixth cello suites, plus Bach’s own arrangement of the fifth suite on this vivid sounding compact disc. Smith transcribed the Cello Suites four and six for a 13-course Baroque lute. Smith uses Bach’s transcription of the Fifth Suite, but with a transposition down for the Baroque lute.

Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites were composed around 1720. He was serving as Kapellmeister of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen’s court orchestra. For once Bach did not have any responsibility to compose church music, so he was able to turn his talents loose on other types of compositions, among them the unaccompanied Cello Suites. Composed about the same time were the unaccompanied violin Sonatas and Partitas. The solo Cello Suites are simpler and less polyphonic than the solo violin Sonatas and Partitas. When asked to write something for lute, Bach chose his fifth Cello Suite to transcribe.

The cello suites have the following movements: Prélude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Menuets I and II (in Suites 1 and 2), Bourées I and II (in Suites 3 and 4), Gavottes I and II (in Suite 6 and the Lute Suite in g minor) and a final Gigue.

Though the movements in each suite retain the names of dances, the suites were not designed for dancing. These suites are profound and elaborate, both technically and musically. They have improvisatory and virtuosic elements. The compositions lose none of their mystery. They are in a simpler form though they follow the plan of the French classical suite. The use of a single melodic line points to the essentials of musical structure, rather than a large Baroque edifice.

The g minor Suite (fifth suite) was recorded in 1980. Suites Four and Six were recorded in 1992. Comparing the sound reveals no difference in quality nor any difference in comparison with the recording of the first three suites (Naive E 8937). Naive has provided an informative insert in French and English.

Both discs are highly recommended for sound, performance and music.

—Zan Furtwangler

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