John J. Puccio
Like many other composers of his time, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) reused and rewrote much of his earlier material, often transcribing entire works for new instruments. So it probably would not have surprised him that musicians today are doing the same things with his music. Theorobist Hopkinson Smith follows up his successful album of Bach's Cello Suites 4, 5 & 6 transcribed for lute with the present disc of Nos. 1, 2 & 3, saying he transcribed the latter for theorbo because he finds the instrument more ideally suited in sound and aesthetic to the first three suites.
Fair enough, especially since Bach himself transcribed at least one of the suites for lute. Indeed, as Smith points out, “more than half of the continental lute music of the Renaissance is made up of adaptations of vocal works.” Whatever, the approach works and provides exquisite entertainment.
The theorbo, if you’re not sure, is a now-obsolete bass lute with two sets of strings attached to separate peg boxes, one above the other, on the neck. The biggest difference between the theorbo and the cello, of course, is that as one would do with any lute, one plucks the theorbo rather than using a bow. Think, then, of the cello suites on guitar, if it helps.
Smith performs the suites gently, with conviction and ease, creating from them easy-flowing renditions. He adds sweetness and refinement throughout the interpretations, making them rich and well thought out, as friendly to the ear as they are to the mind.
The theorbo imparts a kind of Spanish or Mediterranean spirit to the music, helped no doubt by Smith’s ardent, sunny, bighearted playing. There is nothing rushed here, only soothing, relaxed music making.
For these performances Smith tells us he uses a type of theorbo “invented and developed by Sylvius Weiss in the 1720s,” which has “greater body size and longer string length to produce a fuller sound.” Smith simply calls it the “German theorbo,” and there is no question it works well with the music.
The suites, as you know, contain a little something for everyone, filled as they are with beautiful melodies, harmonies, and inventions of all sorts, but in Smith’s hands they are mostly lyrical. As he explains it, the “tempos may occasionally be somewhat of a surprise to listeners used to the solo cello version. With the resonance and fuller harmonies of the German theorbo, one tends to roll more with some of the more robust dance rhythms of these suites, with no need to rush through. The silence beyond the music is the constant friend and companion of any player of early plucked instruments.”
In other words, don’t expect the usual lickety-split of a period-instruments performance. Smith takes his time with the music, producing uniquely serene, lovely, contemplative renderings of the suites that reveal endless new pleasures.
The Naive engineers recorded the music in 2012 at the MC2: Grenoble, France. They miked the theorbo moderately close, providing a clean, warm sound that complements the rich tone of the instrument well. One could hardly ask for a more-precise, more-natural sonic presentation, very sharp, very clear, yet very resonant and natural.