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Pulse! Magazine
October 1999; 81

Hopkinson Smith: master of the strings

by Bradley Bambarger

"THE LUTE IS CERTAINLY the most personal of instruments and perhaps the most perfect," said Stravinsky. In the hands of Hopkinson Smith, it is both. To hear him perform Bach or Weiss or Gallot is to hear a poet of the personal, a conjurer of ideally intimate sounds. He plays the lute like it never went out of style.

New York-born and Harvard-educated, the 52-year-old Smith played the classical guitar in his teens, switching to the lute in college. Studying in Europe with Emilio Pujol and Eugen Dombois, he eventually developed a mastery of all manner of archaic plucked instruments--Baroque and Renaissance lutes and guitars, the Spanish vihuela, the theorbo. Smith has taught for many years at the renowned Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland, and he has recorded 20 solo albums for the French Astrée label, in addition to many as an original member of Jordi Savall's Hespèrion XX.

While Smith extols the plectrum skills of such precursors as Dombois, Walter Gerwig and Julian Bream, he also admires the period cello pioneer Anner Bylsma and golden-age pianist Dinu Lipatti. You can hear Bylsma's mix of scholarliness and spontaneity in Smith's playing, as well as the lapidary imagism of Lipatti. Smith's sensitive, sonorous touch is on display in his survey of the French Baroque school; his take on the end of that line, Jacques de Gallot (1625-1690), appears on a gravely beautiful 1994 album that Astrée just reissued at midprice in its "Treasures of the Baroque" series (AS128528, ). And Smith's flawless articulation and vibrant sense of drama are evident in his way with the vihuela literature from 16th-century Spain; his turns on the elegant pavanes of Milan, the more piquant fantasies of Narváez and the rich ruminations of Mudarra are collected in a midprice boxed set reissued last year to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of the Spanish King Philip II (E8623, ).

In the Teutonic realm lie the twin peaks of the lute, the music of contemporaries J.S. Bach and Sylvius Leopold Weiss. The Dresdener Weiss was perhaps the greatest of all performer-composers on the lute, a veritable Baroque Orpheus. "Weiss was a genius," Smith says. "He introduced so many improvisatory modes of expression on the lute, with not only this profusion of notes but a real Italianate cantabile. Of all the star instrumentalists in the Dresden court orchestra, he was the highest paid. That's a testament both to his magnetism as a performer and to the lute's cachet at the time." Smith has dipped into Weiss' vast corpus of compositions (more than 600) with two Astrée discs, the first including the great F minor sonata (E8718, ) and the most recent with two dramatic partitas (E8620, ).

Drawn to the famous keyboardist Bach, Weiss became friends with him after a visit in 1739: a legendary summit that included a bout of joint improvisation--"something musically very fine," reported one lucky witness. According to Smith, even with Weiss' black pearls, "there is no higher art on the lute than Bach's. Weiss was a giant of the instrument, but Bach goes beyond the instrument." Smith covered all of Bach's original works for lute on a two-disc set from the late '80s (E7721, ), and he followed that up a few years ago with his transcriptions of two of Bach's solo cello suites (E8744, ).

In time for the 250th anniversary of Bach's death next year, Astrée will release Smith's most ambitious Bach project yet: a two-disc set showcasing his transcriptions of the composer's sonatas and partitas for solo violin. "The violin music lends itself to the lute organically, since there is this suggestion of polyphony throughout," Smith says. "And these works seem like arrangements to begin with. They sound as if Bach transcribed for the violin music that was written on a higher, more abstract plane."

Beyond the sublimities of Bach, Smith has also immersed himself in lighter fare. His most recent album showcases rarely heard lute concertos from Haydn and such lesser-known 17th-century Austro-Germans as J.F. Fasch and B.J. Hagen. In league with a string quartet led by the fine Chiara Banchini, Smith limns a beguiling songfulness from these works, with a bel canto style that belies the lute's notoriously quick decay (E8641, ).

As the world became less and less intimate of a place, the lute was gradually retired from its leading role. Yet even though "the lute may not be one of the most contemporary pursuits," Smith says, "it can still have real resonance for people. This isn't elevator music--it's music to stop and listen to, that can refresh your soul. It is powerful, not in decibels but in expressiveness. The reason the lute still has this iconic aura is because other than the human voice, it is the instrument that speaks most directly from the heart to the heart." --Bradley Bambarger



 

 

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