About this Recording
8.553988 - WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 2 (Barto) - Nos. 5, 25, 50

Silvius Leopold Weiss (1686-1750)
Sonatas for Lute Volume 2
No. 5 in G major; No. 25 in G minor; No. 50 in B flat major

Silvius Leopold Weiss was the most important lutenist of the eighteenth century. He is mentioned by his contemporaries along with Bach and Telemann as one of Germany’s most accomplished musicians. Born in Breslau or Grotkau, in what is now Poland, Weiss probably had his first lute lessons with his father. His younger brother, Johann Sigisimund, was also a lutenist, and although he achieved fame as a child prodigy, his stature as a composer never rivalled that of his brother. A sister of the two was also an excellent lutenist.

Like many young musicians, Weiss began his career touring the European royal courts in search of a lucrative position. In 1708, he accompanied the Polish Prince Alexander Sobieski to Rome, where he stayed until the Prince's death, six years later. Although we know very little of his activities in Rome, he surely had close contact with Italian composers, as can be heard in his Suonatas (from the Italian suonare – to sound).

In 1718, Weiss was appointed court lutenist in Dresden by August the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. Weiss would keep this position until his death thirty-two years later, even turning down an extraordinary offer of two thousand Rheintaler yearly from the court in Vienna. As to why Weiss chose to stay in Dresden, we can assume that the musical life there offered him possibilities not available elsewhere. An elite group of well-known composers, singers and instrumentalists had been gathered under August the Strong and his successor, Friedrich August II These included Johann David Heinichen, Francesco Maria Veracini, Johann Georg Pisendel, Johann Joachim Quantz, Pantaleon Hebenstreit and later Johann Adolf Hasse and his wife, the soprano Faustina Bordoni. Famous castrati, such as Senesino and Berselli, gave exciting guest appearances.

The court life in Dresden at this time was certainly not free of intrigues and jealousies. In 1738, Weiss was arrested, perhaps because of a disparaging remark about his superiors. Only through the intervention of Count Keyserlingk, a music-lover and friend of the Weiss family, was he finally released Another incident, which had occurred in 1722, was much more serious for Weiss and threatened to end his musical career. A violinist called Petit wanted Weiss to support him in his bid for a position at the court Perhaps because Weiss was not helpful enough in this matter, Petit bit him on the thumb so badly that it was feared he would never play again. Fortunately, the injury was not so serious and Weiss was able to perform again several months later.

Contemporary reports portray Weiss as a brilliant performer and improviser. He is said to have competed with Johann Sebastian Bach (Weiss on the lute, Bach on the harpsichord) at improvising fantasies and fugues. We know of at least one visit in 1739 to the house of the Thomaskantor in Leipzig documented by Johann Elias Bach. Weiss and his circle of friends in Dresden would apparently go to great lengths to hear good music. In 1723, Weiss travelled together with Carl Heinrich Graun and Johann Joachim Quantz to Prague to hear the opera Costanza e Fortezza by Johann Joseph Fux. Upon learning that no more seats were available, they volunteered to play in the opera orchestra. One can imagine that the conductor, Caldara, substituting for Fux, who was ill, was more than happy to have such illustrious instrumentalists for the performance.

Silvius Weiss died on 16th October, 1750, in Dresden. At the time of his death there was little left of the relative comfort in which he had lived. He left his family with virtually nothing. His widow eventually found a position as a nursery-maid at the court to a princess of the royal family.

Silvius Weiss left over six hundred pieces for solo lute. The best of these can be found in two manuscripts; one in the British Library in London, and one in the Sachsisches Landesbibliothek in Dresden. Taken from these sources, the three Suonatas on this recording can be roughly grouped into early, middle and late works.

The Suonata in G major can be considered an early, mature work. Found in the London manuscript, this piece is a showcase for Weiss's legendary virtuosity, as well as his melodic gift. The individual movements are tied together through the recurring use of similar melodic material. For example, the opening phrases of the Allemande and the Bourrée use virtually the same melody, rhythmically altered to fit the needs of the dance. The same is true with the arpeggiated Courante and the contrapuntal Menuet. Even in the Gigue, Weiss reaches back to the opening phrases, now rhythmically much more complex, of the Prélude.

The Suonata in G minor is found in both major collections and is a somewhat later work. In this recording it is played from the Dresden version. The Prélude (added later and not in the London manuscript) serves to capture the attention of the listener and introduce the mood and harmonic foundation of the following pieces. A graceful Allemande andante leads to a Passepied, which, according to Quantz, is similar to a Menuet, but played more lightly and quickly. After a rollicking Bourrée, with a hornpipe-like opening motif, Weiss sets a reflective, serene Siarabande in the relative major key of B flat. In the London version of this piece, the Menuet is titled La Babilieuse. This could be translated as 'the babbler', and reaches back to the practice of giving pieces descriptive title, in seventeenth century French. This work closes with a spirited French Gigue, reminiscent of J.S. Bach.

The Suonata in B flat major has all the majesty characteristic of the late works of Weiss. It begins with a sweeping Introduzzione on a grand scale, combining the rhythmically free feel of a Prelude, with the repeated structure of the more usual Allemande. The following Courante is a complex, arpeggiated work that has little to do with the actual dance. Between the Bourrée and the Menuet, both on a very large scale here, with inventive melodic development, we find the deeply moving, introverted Sarabande in G minor, one of Weiss's most beautiful pieces. The Presto, a concerto movement in the style of Arcangelo Corelli, is again conceived in epic proportions and is a dazzling display of Weiss's skill both as a player and composer. Indeed, in its technical and expressive scope this Suonata confirms the words of Ernst Gottlieb Baron, that Silvius Leopold Weiss "was the first to have shown that one could do more on the lute, than anyone could imagine".

Frank Legl

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