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Penguin Guide, January 2009

WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 1 (Barto) - Nos. 11, 42, 49 8.553773
WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 2 (Barto) - Nos. 5, 25, 50 8.553988
WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 3 (Barto) - Nos. 2, 27, 35 8.554350
WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 4 (Barto) - Nos. 21, 37, 46 8.554557
WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 5 (Barto) - Nos. 38, 43 / Tombeau sur la mort de M. Cajetan Baron d’Hartig 8.554833
WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 6 (Barto) - Nos. 7, 23, 45 8.555722
WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 7 (Barto) - Nos. 15, 48 8.557806
WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 8 (Barto) - Nos. 19, 34, 36 8.570109
WEISS, S.L.: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 9 (Barto) - Nos. 32, 52, 94 8.570551

In layout Weiss’s Lute Sonatas are very much like the suites and partitas of Bach, usually beginning with a Prelude, followed by a group of dance movements: Allemande, Courante, Bourrée, Saranbande, Menuet and Gigue. Sometimes Weiss closes with a Chaconne (Suite 6), Passacaglia (Suite 14) or an unusual movement, like the striking Paysane which ends Suite 25. The music is invariably through-composed, so that every movement is interrelated, and although each has an independent thematic existence one sometimes has a sense of a set variations.

On Naxos Roberto playing a baroque lute, shows us the breadth of Weiss’s achievement and how naturally the music suits the lute, rather than the guitar. On almost all the discs offered so far he combines one early, one mid-period and one late Sonata.

The manuscripts of the Sonata in G minor (No. 5), which opens the second disc, was found in London. It is most winning work, spontaneously integrating its basic musical material throughout, with the central Courante and Bourrée particularly infections, and a jaunty finale.

No. 2 (8.554350), is another early work, found in the London manuscript. It too is all of a piece, so that the continued use of the remaining six movements very neatly. No. 35, written in D minor (the natural key of the baroque lute), is one of the composer’s last and most ambitious works, probably dating from the 1740s. The measured Allemande is harmonically exploratory, and even the finale, by use of the instrument’s lower tessitura, provides virtuosity without loss of gravitas.

No. 46 in A minor (8.554557) is another late work; it begins unusually, with a French Overture (though without the usual reprise of the opening section). This is another of Weiss’s most inspired and varied Sonatas, very outgoing, with a lively Bourrée, followed by a halcyon Sarabande, a pair of Minuets ( in A minor and A major) effectivekt contrasted in mood, and one of the composer’s bravura moto perpetuo finales.

No. 43 (8.554833) is one of the composer’s last works—and one of his finest. On the disc if follows immediately after the solemn Tombeau for Count Jan Anton Losy (a celebrated Bohemian nobleman and lutenist), and theSonata’s dignified opening Allemande might almost be a funeral march for the lamented Count. The A major Sonata (No. 45) isone of Weiss’s most mature works, coming from the 1740s.Like No. 50, it  has an Introduzzione, but this time in the form of a French Overture which introduced a theme a little like Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith.

Among the more recent issues is Sonata No. 52 in C minor. A large-scale work than most of the others, it includes another Overture as well as the usual dance movements and a closing Presto. It plays for 31 minutes and is very considerable work. Sonata No. 94 in G minor is less ambitious, but it has a rather melancholy opening and then lightens to cover a wide variety of mood in five movements and a comparatively modest time-saon.

But the quality of Weiss;s invention seems inexhaustible throughout all these works, and he has a worthy exponent in Robert Barto, a virtuoso lutenist if a high order and a fine musician. He understands this repertory perfectly, never seeking to impose his personality over that of the composer, and the first-class Naxos recording gives him a natural presence.

The Tenor Diaries, March 2008

The German lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss, who was an almost exact contemporary of Sebastian Bach, was regarded as the greatest composer-performer of lute music in Europe during his day. His reputation was equal to that of John Dowland of England who lived more than a century earlier. In 1760, the poet and musician Luise Gottsched wrote that “his compositions stand out above all that are known today. To be sure they are difficult, but only those who are too careless or too old, or otherwise prefer another instrument.” His vast output was difficult to obtain in his own lifetime as he carefully guarded the manuscripts to prevent others from stealing his work, a common practice in an age before universal copyrights.

This fine performance by Robert Barto, the seventh volume in an ongoing series of recordings released by the completist minded Naxos label, presents two sizeable works called sonatas, although they more closely resemble the suites of dances that Bach would call partitas. Opening with a rather melancholy Allemande, the B-flat major sonata effectively moves back and forth from serenity to jaunty frivolity as it runs its course. Barto plays with a warm and generous tone, direct and free of affectation. He has an excellent sense of tempo and it is obvious that he understands that at some basic level, all of this music could be danced to.

The f-sharp minor sonata begins with a gravitas similar to the earlier work. Considerably later in the composer’s output, it seems a bit more reflective and weightier, but still is possessed with a certain joyous spirit that makes the music immediately attractive. Again Mr. Barto is in complete control here, carefully bringing out inner voices and displaying a fine sense of arching line and rhythmic integrity.

In short, this is peaceful and contemplative music, even when it is expressing joy. It is the perfect compliment to an evening by the fireside with a good book and a glass of wine. It will carry you back to a time when refinement and elegance were still valued as a character trait, a time when self-expression through art and music were trademarks of the well educated. Robert Barto’s unhurried virtuosity is just the thing to set a perfect mood. Set aside an hour without interruptions and revel in this bouquet of musical delights.

Brian Robins
Fanfare, December 2006

It came as something of a surprise to find that this is Volume 7 of American lutenist Robert Barto’s intégrale of the Weiss lute sonatas, or more accurately suites. Volume I was reviewed as far back as 1998 Fanfare 21:2, while I covered the second volume in 22:6, and Martin Anderson the third in 23:6. Since then three further volumes appear to have slipped into the catalog without notice in these pages.

The two sonatas selected for the present disc are expansive works dating respectively from the idle period of Weiss’s creative life (No. 15), and his final years, Tim Crawford’s excellent note suggesting the late 1740s as the likely date of the F#-Minor Sonata. The earlier sonata exists in both the ain sources for Weiss’s music, manuscripts preserved in London and Dresden, but there are considerable textural differences between the two. Barto has opted for the London version, which Crawford suggests is musically the more satisfactory. The B flat Sonata is believed to be one of the first in which Weiss exploited the full range of the 13-course lute he is crediting with inventing. Certainly, there seems to be a conscious attempt to exploit contrasts of sonority in the opening Allemande, but to an even greater degree in the final Gigue, where the nimble passagework calls for a descent into the low register immediately followed by an ascent high into the treble range. In between come a sunny Courante that also calls for great dexterity (this is one of the few movements where I felt Barto’s fingerwork might have been a degree more precise), a bucolic, more chordally conceived Paisane, a Menuet, and an expressive Sarabande, whose long lines are shaped by Barto with great musicality.

The B flat is a fine work, but it pales in comparison with the late No. 48, one of the finest Weiss Sonatas I’ve yet to encounter. The significance of the rare key signature is immediately apparent in the Allemande, to which the composer appends the additional marking Andante. The mood of mellow sad eloquence is scarcely dissipated by the ensuing rich broken chords, a reminder of Weiss’s debt to the style brise of the great school of French 17th-century lutenists. One notes, too, in this Allemande the clarity of Weiss’s splendidly wrought counterpoint, and the unexpected harmonic twists. The emotional weight of the sonata is balanced by the Sarabande, also marked Andante, another deeply poetic movement of great beauty. Noble and pensive, the movement has great rhythmic subtlety, and, in the second half, a remarkable modulatory passage that contrasts strongly with the serene sequences that lead the Sarabande to a thoughtful close. The quicker moving movements demand great virtuosity from their performer, especially the final one, where Weiss sets a trap for the unwary lutenist by marking it Presto. Needless to say Barto does not fall into it, opening at a tempo that one feels is short of meeting such a marking. The reason is soon apparent, since the movement is encrusted with fearsome ornamental triplets that would quickly bring even the most accomplished player to his knees if he set off too fast.

Throughout, in fact, Barto plays with a keen awareness of both the technical demands of these sonatas, and, more important, the poetic implications of the slower movements. He’s not afraid to introduce gentle rubato for expressive purposes, as for example in the Courante of the F#-Minor. I did wonder if the strong emphases on the first beat of the measure in the Bourée of the same sonata was not a little overdone, but this is a tiny matter in the context of such splendid performances. When eventually complete, there can be no doubt that Barto’s traversal of the sonatas will stand as one of the major recording undertakings of recent years. Weiss’s lute output represents a major peak of Baroque instrumental music; as such it demands to be made available to both scholar and listener. And now to run down those missing volumes!

David Blomenberg
MusicWeb International, November 2006

There has been considerable attention paid in some circles towards Sting’s Into the Labyrinth on Deutsche Grammophon. This, his latest album, features his performances of John Dowland. The spotlight has been placed not necessarily on Sting’s own performances, but, as I think was his main intention, towards the works of John Dowland and specifically his lute works. The works of Leopold Weiss, in this series, are well-situated to benefit from the subsequent rise in interest in lute music.

This release, with performances of Sonatas 15 and 48, is a delight; a disc well worth listening to. The series of the works of Weiss continues here with Volume 7; the first that I have heard. From all indications, it will not be the last I have in my collection.

Both of the sonatas here are eminently listenable, with the edge given to No. 48 which opens with a beautiful melodic line. The entire Allemande: Andante has an expansive quality that Barto brings out wonderfully. This piece, according to the liner notes, is undated, but is indicative of Weiss’s mature work. This first movement makes quite effective use of the lower register of the instrument, which forms a firm foundation for the piece. The following Courante, my favourite movement on this disc, continues the overall tone of the work, though in a lighter mood, and with faster tempo. Again it makes great use of the interplay between the lower bass strings that toll out under the swifter higher melody. Barto’s playing here is effortless, with a sublime sense of timing and tone. The sound quality is just what you’d expect from Naxos, cleanly done. The recording aesthetic is intimate, with enough ambient space to keep the sound from feeling too claustrophobic, though close enough to capture Barto’s breathing in certain passages.

Sonata 15, dated around 1723, is no slouch either, beginning gently, though without as prominently memorable a melody.There are two versions, the earlier one being used for this recording. A later version was copied around the time of Weiss’s death, according to the liner notes, and has movements from another sonata showing up in place of the shorter movements heard here. It is unclear whether the later version was a mistake or reflected the composer’s intention. The second movement in 6/8 time is delightful, bright and motivated, and this sunny demeanour follows into the next movement. The Sarabande is a dignified piece that holds interest, beginning with the same chord that began the opening Allemande and continues with meditative calm and poise. The following Menuet gives us an intermediate triple-meter step toward the giddy Gigue that closes the sonata.

All in all, this is a delight to hear, and, of the discs I’ve received for review, the one I’ve returned to most often for repeated, enjoyable listens.

Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, September 2006

Though it has attracted less attention than some of the company’s other ventures, the Naxos series of sonatas for lute by Weiss, played by the American lutenist Robert Barto is one of which the company can rightly be very proud.

Weiss was the most significant lutenist of his age; born in what is now Wrocław in Poland, his family, who served at the local court, were already steeped in the traditions of lute-playing and he was first taught by his father. At the tender age of seven he was accomplished enough to play before Emperor Leopold I. Beginning his career in Wrocław (or Breslau as it then was), he went on to hold appointments in Düsseldorf and Rome—where he was part of the retinue of Prince Alexander Sobieski. After Sobieski’s death Weiss seems initially to have made a kind of musical tour of Europe, his playing being in such demand. In 1718 he chose to return to ‘fixed’ employment, accepting a well-paid post at the court in Dresden, where his colleagues included, at one time or another, Fux, Pisendel, Quantz and Zelenka. Dresden remained his base for the rest of his life, though the terms of his employment also allowed him to also to travel. He was unsuccessfully head-hunted by the Viennese court. He met Bach in Leipzig in 1739. Little of Weiss’s music was published during his lifetime.

In this latest volume of his series, Robert Barto plays on a thirteen-course lute, a design for which Weiss himself was probably responsible. It is a tribute to Barto’s virtuosity that he can handle so demanding an instrument with what sounds like ease; what is even more important is the beauty and subtlety of the music he makes upon it. Both of the sonatas—the term effectively meaning ‘suite’—on this CD are in six movements. The B flat major sonata is made up of an allemande, a courante, a paisane, a sarabande, a menuet and a gigue; the sonata in F sharp minor consists of an allemande, a courante, a bourrée, a sarabande, a menuet and a presto. Though precise dates are hard to arrive at, sonata no.15 probably derives from the 1720s, no. 48 from late in Weiss’s career, perhaps as late as the 1740s.

Both are full of superb music, from the serious grandeur of the allemande which opens the earlier sonata to the dazzling presto which closes the later one. This is a disc for all lovers of the lute.

George Pratt
BBC Music Magazine, June 2006

The German lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687–1750), a near-contemporary of Bach, enjoyed European-wide fame in his lifetime. His career was almost brought to an end when a jealous French violinist bit Weiss’s thumb and put him out of action for some months. However, he survived to become the most highly paid musician at the Saxon court in Dresden. His highly imaginative and distinctive style spans an Italianate quality of inexorable drive, German counterpoint and harmonic invention, combined with French expressiveness.

Barto’s is a huge instrument, 13 ‘courses’ (single strings on top, pairs below), developed to this size by Weiss himself, and ultimately self-destructing—few players could manage such a complex monster. Barto’s virtuosity is unquestionable and in his hands the lute virtually matches the harpsichord in compass, but with the added dimensions of dynamics shaping phrases, and a warm sonority emphasised by low-pitch tuning.

Weiss was a highly imaginative and distinctive composer. Delights abound: a strutting, lively Bourrée, a strangely un-danceable Minuet with irrational phrase-lengths, a Gigue full of free-wheeling repeated bars before the line dances onward. The final Presto on the recording is technically dazzling.

Robert Barto
June 2006

Another welcome disk in the ongoing series, this volume offering two major sonatas: No. 15 in Bb and the monumental No. 16 in the unusual key of #. The music is beautifully melodic, as is Barto’s playing, aided and abetted by a live acoustical setting, all of which combine to make this CD a treasure!

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, June 2006

Weiss, the great eighteenth century lutenist and composer, has been memorably served in this disc, the seventh in Robert Barto’s complete survey. I’ve not caught up with any of the other volumes but if this one is representative of the general standard then I can say nothing finer than that both composer and performer kept me engrossed for an hour, without distraction or intercession.

As a contemporary of J.S. Bach it is perhaps inevitable that he should share certain stylistic imperatives. The shared Italian influence is the most obvious but what emerges from both these sonatas—the later sonata may be technically the finer but the B flat major is hardly less impressive—is Weiss’s absolute command of each dance idiom, the expressive potential embodied in the Sarabandes and the mighty sonority of Weiss’s thirteen-course baroque lute with its magnificent sonority. I have been critical of one or two guitar records from Naxos with ruinously intrusive shifts but Barto proves a master here.

The depth and warmth of the Barto sound is a significant point in the success of this disc. Technically impeccable despite the myriad difficulties he faces, he manages to evoke the sound-worlds of each movement with lyricism and with flair. The extended bass notes ring out fully but with rounded tone. The buoyancy of the Courante of the B flat major Sonata belies the troublesome nature of the silent shifts. When it comes to the Sarabande Barto brings great humanity and dextrous warmth to bear. In the difficult Menuet—though Barto as ever never gives one the impression that it’s difficult—the rhythmic brio is pronounced.

The later F sharp minor sonata is an even more magnificent work. The subtlety and range of coloration in the opening Allemande are matched by the deftness of the dynamics Barto employs but even these are mightily eclipsed by the Courante. Here the expansive, ceaselessly imaginative lines twist and curl, nobly projected, with dramatic bass line pointing adding its own drama—as deep as a forte piano and more resonant. The Sarabande is one of gravity and inevitability and the Presto finale, once more teeming with digital problems, is projected with wonderful élan. The articulation and the runs are of crystalline precision; the amount of detail is breathtaking.

The flowing elasticity of both these sonatas is memorable and the performances, ideally recorded in the Green Room of Offord Hall in Aurora in Ontario, equally so. Truly a marvellous disc.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group