The lute is not an instrument meant to be played in major concert halls:
unwrapping a cough drop while a lutenist performs could drown out an entire
fantasia. In general, live performances are superior to recorded versions,
but--unless you're privy to a recital in some royal chamber--recordings of lute
music may be the best way to appreciate it fully. Certainly, the two discs most
recently released by Hopkinson Smith '70 reward close, repeated listenings.
I'll confess right off that I think Smith is a marvel to hear. But these
discs don't just offer extremely refined playing, they also provide a
historical survey of composition for the lute and its family. The first,
Hopkinson Smith Portrait,
is a low-priced sampler comprising selections from his 20 solo recordings.
From the Renaissance in Spain and music for the
viheula da mano,
to the high German Baroque and the 13-course lute, Smith appears to have
played, and mastered, works by all major composers for early plucked-string
instruments. The second recording shows off the music of Sylvius Leopold Weiss,
Bach's contemporary and arguably the greatest of all composers for the lute.
It's poignant that the lute fell out of favor soon after Weiss died. It's as if
he exploited so many of the instrument's capabilities that it perished,
All the selections on the first recording are interesting, but highlights
include a fantasia by Alonso De Mudarra, the
Tombeau de Gogo
by Charles Mouton, and the
by Giovanni Kapsperger. This exquisite piece, in its constant soft plucking and
shifting arpeggiated harmonies, put me in mind of watching soft rain on a still
pond. Rounding out the disc, two examples of Smith's acclaimed transcriptions
of Bach's work alternate with a handful of very pleasing selections by Weiss.
Listeners who prefer extended interpretations to compilation discs can't
go wrong with the second recording. Weiss's music has all of the spaciousness
and grandeur of Baroque music but sounds less pedagogical than Bach's. He wears
his heart on his sleeve more and wrings a lonely melancholy out of the
instrument in the D minor partita. The Partita in G major is sunnier and more
Smith's style is expressive but not sentimental. His ornaments and tone
always remain tasteful, subtle. His phrasing is highly articulated, yet rounded
and unforced, creating the impression that much of this music must have
accompanying lyrics to be rediscovered. He favors the emotional content of the
music, and his melody, over strict regulation of time, but is mysteriously able
to communicate a driving, elastic rhythm, surprising at every hearing.
Ultimately though, it's not possible to explain how an artist as capable as
this creates his effects. As was once said of the poet Philip Larkin, Smith is
so good, he is useless as a model.
I'm sure he would disagree. Smith appears to be as dedicated a teacher
and scholar as he is a musician. Now an instructor at the Schola Cantorum
Basiliensis, he left Cambridge in 1973 for what he thought would be only a year
of study at that school. Instead, he remained in Basel and now gives master
classes and concerts throughout Europe and North and South America. Like other
lutenists, notably Paul O'Dette, Smith has been instrumental in rediscovering
much of the lute's repertoire. He is, according to a former student, an
exacting master who emphasizes tone quality and the intelligibility of musical
lines above all.
Smith has said that "[b]ehind any guitar music is real silence. Once you
have that, you can start to make something from the sound." And it's true that
in the delicate nuances of the lute's tone, the choral hum of its strings
fading so quickly, silence feels much closer and richer than one would expect.
In these discs, Smith shapes that silence into something rare and beautiful.