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Charles T. Downey
Ionarts, May 2009

Bach’s works for lute are one of those odd corners of the Baroque corpus, another example of Bach’s encyclopedic musical interests, even for instruments that were on their way out of fashion. Certainly Bach was acquainted with lutenists at most stages of his career, but he did not own one and conceived his music for it mostly through the medium of the keyboard. Not long after the new complete set of the Bach lute works by Paul O’Dette met with my approval, this recording crossed my desk, with keyboard specialist Elizabeth Farr playing them on a Lautenwerk, or lute-harpsichord. We know that Bach owned two of them, keyboard instruments with gut (and some brass) strings that imitated the sound of the lute, and that he appears to have composed at least some of his “lute pieces” to be played on it. He used keyboard notation instead of lute tablature, and some of the pieces are actually impossible to play on a lute without some creative adaptation.

No historical examples of the instrument have survived from the 18th century, but builders have made attempts to reconstruct them. Historical instrument builder and fellow Michigan State University alumnus Keith Hill designed the Lautenwerk heard on these two discs according to the specifications Bach recorded for one of the instruments in his collection (copied by Jacob Adlung in 1768). Some of the pieces are arrangements by Bach of other works—a cello suite, a violin partita, and a violin sonata, and they do not necessarily work as idiomatically for this instrument. A delightful piece that is quite new to me is BWV 990, a C major sarabande that Bach reportedly adapted from Lully’s Bellérophon (although I have yet to find it in the score), followed by 15 partite, or variations, the last four of which are a mini-dance suite.

Farr plays all of this music with a delicious sensibility, embellishing gracefully and providing plenty of variation among registrations between repeats and sections, giving the impression of performance by a consort of instruments.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, January 2009


Old J.S. must have been a lute buff because he owned one along with two lute-harpsichords, and composed as well as arranged a significant number of works for it throughout his career. These are generously represented here in this impressive collection of original pieces (BWV 996-999) as well as transcriptions (BWV 964, 990, 995, 1000 and 1006a), impeccably played by Elizabeth Farr on this magnificent instrument…Suffice it to say she is a keyboard artist of exceptional ability. Technical mastery, precision of attack and well-judged tempos characterize her playing, making this an outstanding release.

The sonics are superb, putting this disc in the demonstration quality category. The sound is totally natural, and the magnificent tone of this instrument is significantly enhanced by a wide soundstage and an appropriately reverberant acoustic. Harpsichord enthusiasts will not want to be without this album or its successor mentioned above.

John Fleming, Times Performing Arts Critic
St. Petersburg Times, September 2008

Why we care: Elizabeth Farr plays the lute-harpsichord, a two-keyboard instrument with a combination of gut and brass strings. It was built for her by Keith Hill.

Why we like it: Bach is always addictive, but this two-CD set has a wonderfully serene effect that provides ideal accompaniment for anything from meditation to being stuck in a traffic jam. It includes suites and other works written for lute-harpsichord as well as transcriptions. The lute-harpsichord sounds like a harpsichord with just a hint of the lute.

Reminds us of: Why Bach's cosmic genius may be best realized in his keyboard works.

Grade: A, September 2008


It is a genuine pleasure to discover less-known works by a very well-known composer. It is an equally genuine pleasure to discover a composer who is not well known but whose works show a very high quality of craftsmanship. And sometimes, the pleasure lies simply in a performance of familiar works that is so good that it reveals the music in all its greatness.

Bach’s lute-harpsichord music is fascinating primarily because of the instrument’s sound. Some of the works on Elizabeth Farr’s new two-CD set will be familiar to listeners in other arrangements, such as the Fugue in G minor, BWV 1000, which is the second movement of Sonata No. 1 for Violin Solo; or the Sonata in D minor, BWV 964, better known as the Sonata No. 2 (in A minor) for Violin Solo. Other works here, such as suites originally written for lute, may be less well known. No matter—everything sounds different and quite wonderful on the lute-harpsichord, which is a keyboard instrument, strung with gut, that provides a lute-like sound but with much fuller sonic range. Bach owned two of these curious hybrid instruments, and Farr plays a reconstruction of one of them. The music is quite recognizably by Bach, but the sound is highly unusual, as if a lute’s courses had been expanded substantially (each course was typically two strings, except for the highest, single-string chanterelle). No human hand could play a stringed instrument with as many courses as are available on the lute-harpsichord; but the keyboardist can do so. And while the sound of the lute-harpsichord is not quite that of the lute, neither is it that of the harpsichord, having more of the lute’s characteristic warmth. The four suites in this set (BWV 995, 996, 997 and 1006a), and the fugue and sonata arrangements, are complemented by a Prelude, Fugue and Allegro (BWV 998), a Prelude (BWV 999), and a Sarabanda con partite (BWV 990)—all played with fine attention to detail and with a sound whose discovery is a delight in itself.

Bradley Bambarger
New Jersey Star-Ledger, August 2008

The harpsichord and its repertoire can make for a sensual, intimate avenue of aural escape. That takes not only a sensitive player, but an alluring instrument and the right acoustics.

Even those who think they are allergic to the harpsichord may find themselves beguiled by the tone of the lute-harpsichord. This mysterious Baroque hybrid, strung mostly in gut like a lute rather than in metal like a harpsichord, combined the compass of a keyboard with the warmth of a plucked instrument. A fan of their ravishing sound, Bach owned a couple of lute-harpsichords.

Robert Hill's sublime 1999 release in Hänssler's complete Bach edition has been the go-to disc for the lute-harpsichord works. But American keyboardist Elizabeth Farr—whose William Byrd collection was one of last year's best recordings [Naxos 8.570139-41]—measures up with this bargain-priced double-CD set. She includes not only works Bach wrote especially for lute-harpsichord or lute, but also transcriptions of originals for cello and violin. Hill's touch sings more freely in a mellower atmosphere. But the clarity of Farr's playing has its own poetry, matched by transparent sound.

As on her Byrd set, Farr plays a beautiful instrument by top American builder Keith Hill. There aren't any original lute-harpsichords left, but he worked from specs Bach left behind.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, August 2008

This admirable project encompasses all the works that Bach wrote for the lute: four suites, a sonata and various preludes and fugues, all transcribed for the lute-harpsichord (Lautenwerke). For this monumental undertaking, Ms. Farr – whose superb artistry we've enjoyed on several other Naxos CDs  – plays a powerful-sounding instrument reconstructed by Keith Hill from specifications in Bach's own archive, who owned and played two such instruments. The sound is a bit startling at first, and takes a little while getting used to. The subtleties of the originals for lute are submerged by the onslaught of the lute-harpsichord. For all of Farr's dexterity, I'd recommend taking this music one suite at a time, please.

Dave Lewis, August 2008


One designation in Johann Sebastian Bach's music that used to mystify many was his instruction for certain pieces to be played aufs Lautenwerck. If one were lucky enough to know someone who was conversant in historical keyboard instruments, they would tell you that Bach was referring to the lute-harpsichord, a hybrid instrument strung with gut strings and played from a keyboard that sounded like a lute but had a somewhat wider range. When Bach died in 1750, his will shows that he was still in possession of two of them. However, audible evidence of the instrument is in short supply; as no historic lute-harpsichords exist, the literature written for them wound up in the hands of harpsichordists, pianists, and lute players, the latter group often having to contend with the reality that this music really didn't suit their instrument. The barrier was broken in 1993 when harpsichordist Kim Heindel recorded his disc Aufs Lautenwerck for the Dorian Discovery label on a rebuilt instrument. That disc only included five works; this one, Naxos' Johann Sebastian Bach: Music for Lute-Harpsichord, features Elizabeth Farr in nine, some pieces being transcribed, but nevertheless containing all of the authentic music Bach created for this instrument. The instrument itself is a stunning Keith Hill lute-harpsichord built after specifications taken down from one of the two lute-harpsichords Bach owned.

The lute-harpsichord is one of the most beautiful sounding of all early keyboards; it is not clattery but mellow, not jangling and bright but profound and ominous. Elizabeth Farr has taken the time to familiarize herself with this "new" historic instrument, fully embracing its possibilities in this familiar music of Bach, which comes alive once it is played on the instrument for which it was intended. As the Heindel effort was acquired and heard by very few, this is a great second opportunity to get to know Bach's output for the lute-harpsichord the way it was meant to be heard, and both Farr's performance and Naxos' recording are first-rate. Those who take serious interest in Bach should not fail to take note of this release.

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