About this Recording
8.557806 - WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 7 (Barto) - Nos. 15, 48
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Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750)
Lute Sonatas, Volume 7

 

'Weiss (Sylvio Leopold), a great lutenist, …

He was first taught by his own father, who brought his splendid natural talent so far, that by his seventh year he had already played before Emperor Leopold I.

His compositions stand out above all that are known [today]. To be sure, some say they are difficult, but only those who are too careless or too old, or otherwise prefer another instrument. But they are very hard to find, since he was very reluctant to let them out of his hands. Therefore whoever has a good collection must regard it as a treasure and cherish it.

His touch was very gentle; one could hear it, but did not know where the notes were coming from. In improvising he was incomparable; the piano and forte were completely in his grasp. In short, he was master of his instrument and could do whatever he wanted with it. His surviving works consist of solos, trios, concertos, tombeaux, among which the one for Count Losy is incomparable, and a few short Galanterie pieces. When he died in 1750 the world lost the greatest lutenist that Europe has ever heard and admired.'

(Luise Gottsched, 1760)

 

These words were written by Luise Adelgunde Victoria Gottsched (1713-1762), the extremely gifted wife of the Leipzig professor of poetry, Johann Christoph Gottsched. Quite the equal of her eminent husband, Luise is only now being truly recognised as an important and original figure in German literature, having in her lifetime suffered the inevitable consequences of being the female spouse of a great man. Her talents embraced music as well as letters; her husband wrote that she was a talented harpsichordist as well as a fine player of the lute, although as a girl in her native city of Danzig she had been forced to teach herself this most idiosyncratic of instruments since there were no competent players to be found from whom she could get lessons.

After her marriage in 1735 Luise took advantage of the fact that her new home, Leipzig, was not far from Dresden, where Silvius Leopold Weiss worked at the court of the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. We know that on several occasions she took lessons with Weiss, and amassed a collection of his music that she, at least, believed to be his complete works. Her characterisation of the impression his playing conveyed is truly valuable, for it shows us that not only was Weiss the great improviser that we know from other accounts, and a composer and player of concertos for the instrument with other instruments, which we knew already, but that in solo performance, particularly in the intimate ambience of a lesson, there was something rare about the sound he produced which was unique and entrancing: 'one could hear it, but did not know where the notes were coming from.' This special quality of sound is what lute players have striven for since the earliest times; something rather similar was said of the great English lutenist John Dowland, 'whose heavenly touch upon the lute doth ravish human sense'.

The comparison with Dowland is also apt in another way. Luise Gottsched says that 'some say [his works] are difficult, but only those who are too careless or too old, or otherwise prefer another instrument'. This is surely not meant to suggest that the music of either composer is in any sense easy, but perhaps rather that it amply repays study and is truly idiomatic to the lute.

The two large-scale sonatas recorded here come from the middle and late periods of Weiss's output, respectively. In the S.L. Weiss Sämtliche Werke, the B flat sonata, No. 15, opens with a sarabande described as a Plainte carrying the date '11. Janvier 1719'; but there is good reason to believe that this did not form part of the sonata in Weiss's original conception, so the movement has been omitted from this performance. The allemande and courante survive in Weiss's autograph in the London manuscript, and differ from their other surviving copy, in the Dresden manuscript, in details that might suggest that the London version had been revised by Weiss (perhaps around 1723?). The Dresden version was undoubtedly copied about a quarter of a century later, however, and several of its shorter movements come from a different sonata in the London manuscript, and it is impossible to say either when this conflation took place or whether it had the composer's authority. In any case, the London version seems to be more satisfactory on purely musical grounds.

The solemn Allemande begins low on the instrument and freely explores the sonority of the thirteen-course lute that, according to Luise Gottsched, Weiss had himself invented, as well as employing pedal points (extended passages over a held or repeated bass note) that must have been a striking feature of the great virtuoso's improvising, to judge by its use in many fantasias and preludes that have come down to us. In the Courante, a dactyl rhythm pervading the Dresden version is replaced by triplets, giving this movement a delightful 'swing' throughout. A quirky and humorous Paisane is followed by an unusual Sarabande which begins almost like a minuet; in fact its opening is very reminiscent of that of a B flat minuet found a few pages early in the London manuscript and elsewhere ascribed to Silvius's brother, Johann Sigismund Weiss. Whether this was a conscious reference or is just a coincidence, we shall never know. A Minuet with some delightfully asymmetric phrase-lengths, a favourite device of the composer, then precedes a long Gigue of infectious energy and verve belying its considerable technical challenge.

Though the Sonata No. 48 in F sharp minor is undated in the unique Dresden copy, it definitely dates from the final, most glorious, period of Weiss's composing career. While we cannot be certain when he stopped composing, we know he took his usual place in the Dresden opera orchestra as late as October 1749, and it is reasonable to assume he was still composing in the late 1740s. This sonata is a masterpiece in which Weiss summoned all his skill and employed the full and rich harmonic palette that is such a distinctive feature of the late works. The Allemande is marked Andante, perhaps to emphasize the steady tread of the opening bass line, somewhat like that of an Italian sonata or concerto movement, rather than to indicate briskness. In this movement, the thirteen-course lute is shown off as an instrument that, in the right hands, can achieve, or give the impression of achieving, almost everything that can be done on the harpsichord, but with the added dimensions of dynamic nuance and its special sonority. In the second half, after a long passage of subtly unfolding chromatic harmonies a cleverly disguised reprise of the solemn opening conveys an atmosphere almost of resignation befitting what must be one of the composer's last works. Not that Weiss was lacking vigour; the Courante that follows is one of his longest, with no fewer than 157 action-packed bars in which he runs the gamut of harmonic possibilities on the lute, using the instrument at full stretch, yet never venturing beyond what is playable. The Bourrée is followed by the emotional epitome of the sonata, a sublime Sarabande in A major, like the Allemande marked to be played andante and sharing much of its resigned character. The extended Minuet (84 bars) follows the Presto in the manuscript, but should probably be played before it, as is so often the case in copies of Weiss's music. In many of Weiss's late works, he uses neutral tempo designations, such as 'Presto', 'Allegro', in place of conventional French suite-movement titles like 'Courante' or 'Gigue'. In this case he has moved well beyond the suite into the realms of the sonata, and here gives us a fine movement of great difficulty, using triplets freely and covering the fingerboard of the thirteen-course lute in a manner that can only be described as a tour-de-force.

Tim Crawford


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