About this Recording
8.554350 - WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 3 (Barto) - Nos. 2, 27, 35

Silvius Leopold Weiss (1686-1750)
Sonatas for Lute Volume 3
No. 2 in D major; No. 27 in C minor; No. 35 in D minor

Silvius Leopold Weiss is just beginning to be recognised as one of the most important German composers of the first half of the eighteenth century. The delay is perfectly understandable: a composer whose œuvre is confined to a single genre, solo lute music, is bound to be thought of as interesting to specialists only. Yet in his day this lutenist, an exact contemporary of J.S. Bach, was regarded with awe similar to that accorded the great Leipzig organist by listeners and fellow-composers alike. The two were even compared by contemporary writers, especially for their legendary skill in improvisation, and Weiss was honoured as the highest-paid instrumentalist in the glittering musical establishment at the Saxon Electoral and Polish Royal Court at Dresden, and lived there in some comfort and security. Bach, whose by no means comfortable job in Leipzig was a daily grind of teaching and composing to order, also held a largely honorary position in Dresden as Court Composer, although he did not make regular appearances there as a performer. As far as posterity is concerned, Weiss's principal misfortune is to find himself in the company of a figure now universally acclaimed as perhaps the greatest of all composers. Bach casts a long shadow even over contemporary talents as remarkable as Domenico Scarlatti, Handel, Telemann, Rameau and François Couperin, to name but the most prominent. What chance against such competition in the music-history stakes is there for a composer whose output is exclusively for an obsolete instrument? To make matters worse, Weiss's music is entirely preserved in lute tablature, an arcane form of notation that, outside the domain of purely academic study, demands the reconstruction of historically-accurate instruments and the relearning of playing techniques that are only hinted at in contemporary documents and treatises. Only now, perhaps, with the steady progress in lute-playing (and lute-making) that has gone on since the 1970s, can the listener begin to appreciate what is most special in the music of this highly imaginative and sensitive composer. This is music that, like that for keyboard by Scarlatti or Couperin, or for solo violin or cello by Bach, is not only technically demanding and utterly idiomatic for its instrument, but often highly expressive, with some wonderful and characteristic dramatic gestures.

Weiss's music differs from Bach's in some significant ways. The most immediately striking disparity is in the length of the movements. In this he strayed much further than Bach from the classic French models that one might expect from a lutenist raised in the seventeenth century tradition, basically a French one. Weiss, however, had one great formative experience denied to Bach he spent the years 1708-14 in Italy in the service of the Polish former royal family, at a time when Italian music was in the ascendancy, and Italian opera in particular was the rage of Europe. It seems that this Italian period, working alongside musicians of the calibre of the two Scarlattis, Alessandro and Domenico, and the great Corelli, and probably visiting Venice to hear Vivaldi, was crucial in forming the unique style of Weiss's lute music. In it, we hear not just the formal balance and sophistication of French music, but also the robust architecture of Corelli's concertos, the dramatic harmonic shifts and expressive cantabile melodies associated with the recitatives and arias of Scarlatti's operas; to this can be added a ready familiarity with the energetic and imaginative idioms of Vivaldi's music. In combining French and Italian idioms, Weiss frequently went beyond the formal choreographic restraints of the dance-movements of the conventional baroque suite. It seems highly unlikely that anyone ever attempted to dance to Weiss’s music, and it is most improbable that he was employed to perform in dance-ensembles. His courantes, modeled on the Italian corrente rather than the French variety, are often virtuosic in character, and frequently extend to over eighty measures, a procedure utterly alien to Bach. Minuets, too, can sometimes be of unusual extent, with a bewildering wealth of new melodic ideas presented in succession; again, the contrast with Bach could hardly be greater.

The music here recorded spans a wide period of Weiss's career, although it is hard to be definite about dating. Sonata No. 2 in D major probably comes from the earliest years of Weiss's employment at the Dresden Court (1717-50), since it is found near the beginning of the London MS, which contains a number of dated pieces in roughly chronological order from 1717 to 1721. The Prélude to this sonata had some popularity as a separate item, and is a nice example of the genre, not too technically taxing for the amateur player, but with enough harmonic interest and dramatic twists to make it a satisfying challenge. The Allemande and Courante are in very contrasting styles, with the solemn memory of the former's gravity and langorous melodies being lightly dispelled by the rapid fingerwork of the lively Courante, which imitates violinistic bariolage (a rapid string-crossing technique) in a perfect adaptation to the lute. One of Weiss's characteristically humorous Bourrées (this French genre was derived from a rustic peasant dance) is followed by a beautiful Sarabande in which Weiss's expressive gift for melody and sonority is prominent. A simple Menuet and an ingenious Gigue complete a sonata which is one of several in which Weiss explores the strong and bright sound of D major on the baroque lute.

The sound of the lute at this period is quite strongly affected by the key of the music, since the rank of bass strings always needed to be tuned to the scale of the tonic key. The first chords of Sonata No. 27 in C minor, probably from the early 1720s, reveal a much darker colour, with a wistful, almost tragic aspect to the music. The Allemande uses the lutenistic convention sometimes called the style brisé (broken style), in which chords are continually spread, with melodic notes in all voices sometimes being delayed a little to expressive effect. Unusually, there is no Courante in either version of the sonata, which continues with a Gavotte in which the gravity of the music is further emphasized by its low tessitura. The Rondeau that follows is in a style that may pay homage to the earlier lutenist, Count Losy, who wrote a number of such pieces; it, too, seems unable to shake off the ominous quality of C minor. By contrast, the lovely Sarabande, an excellent example of Weiss's cantabile (singing) style, is an interlude in the sunny relative major key of E flat. With the Menuet, we return again to the depths of C minor and again Weiss keeps the music low on the instrument; this is possibly the least cheerful Menuet in the lute repertory. The sonata's final movements are a Rigaudon and an Angloise, the second of which, being in E flat, is lighter in character, although the music is still low in range. Paradoxically, this Angloise (English dance) is entitled La belle Tiroloise (‘The beautiful Tyrolean girl’), a confusion of nationalities that should not prevent us enjoying one of Weiss's most interesting middle-period sonatas.

With the Sonata No. 35 in D minor we move quite a long way, chronologically, to Weiss's last creative period. Assuming, as we are forced to do, that he wrote the piece in its surviving fair autograph copy soon after its composition, we can surmise that it may have been composed as late as the early 1740s; the handwriting bears a close resemblance to that in an autograph album (1741) in which Weiss accompanied his signature with a tablature example of an enharmonic modulation. Even without such external circumstantial evidence, this is clearly the work of a master at the height of his powers, and takes many of the characteristic features of Weiss's composing style further than in almost any of his other works. The key of D minor is the 'home' key of the baroque lute, and combines a richness of sonority (due to the fact that all the open strings were tuned to the chord of the key) with an expressive nobility tinged with minor-key melancholy that Weiss seems to have been temperamentally disposed to exploit whenever possible. The sonata is very much on the grand scale, and seems to sum up the experience of a composing and performing lifetime. The Allemande, while not exceptionally long in number of measures (37) is marked Adagio instead of the more common andante, and it uses the entire range of the instrument and virtually every technical and expressive device in the lutenist's repertory. It is an astonishing movement in terms of harmony; after the first repeated section the second opens with a few measures of the most extreme chromatic modulation, touching on keys as distant as B flat minor and A flat minor before returning via C minor, B minor and A minor to a cleverly-disguised reprise of the movement's opening. The Courante is certainly long in notes (151 measures), but is so structurally well-conceived as to seem perfectly balanced with the remarkable movement that preceded it. The Paysane, like the bourrée a dance derived from the music of the common people that Weiss seems to have relished, is marked by another characteristic feature of the composer, a habit of extending musical phrases a little further than the listener expects them to go, usually by carefully contrived sequences that are often less symmetrical than they seem at first. Weiss's cantabile style is again prominent in the F major Sarabande, whose texture is often wonderfully rich and sonorous; again, the second half modulates extensively, most notably in a sequence of four-voiced chords whose bass line descends chromatically from D to A, the 'chromatic tetrachord' which is a well-known element of the language of the musical lament. The Menuet introduces new ideas rather in the manner of a concerto rondo of the next generation of composers and the final Allegro seems even more in the style of the concerto. One can almost imagine the sound of an accompanying string orchestra in this music, which combines the energy of Vivaldi with Weiss's melodic and harmonic individuality in a movement of much virtuosity which acts as a perfectly-judged finale to this wonderful sonata.

Tim Crawford

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