WEISS: Lute Sonatas Nos. 2, 27 and 35
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Silvius Leopold Weiss(1686-1750)
Sonatas for LuteVolume 3
No. 2 in D major; No.
27 in C minor; No. 35 in D minor
Silvius Leopold Weissis just beginning to be recognised as one of the most important Germancomposers of the first half of the eighteenth century. The delay is perfectlyunderstandable: a composer whose ceuvre is confined to a single genre, solo lutemusic, is bound to be thought of as interesting to specialists only. Yet in hisday this lutenist, an exact contemporary of J.S. Bach, was regarded with awesimilar to that accorded the great Leipzig organist by listeners andfellow-composers alike. The two were even compared by contemporary writers,especially for their legendary skill in improvisation, and Weiss was honouredas the highest-paid instrumentalist in the glittering musical establishment atthe Saxon Electoral and Polish Royal Court at Dresden, and lived there in somecomfort and security. Bach, whose by no means comfortable job in Leipzig was adaily grind of teaching and composing to order, also held a largely honoraryposition in Dresden as Court Composer, although he did not make regularappearances there as a performer. As far as posterity is concerned, Weiss'sprincipal misfortune is to find himself in the company of a figure now universallyacclaimed as perhaps the greatest of all composers. Bach casts a long shadoweven over contemporary talents as remarkable as Domenico Scarlatti, Handel,Telemann, Rameau and Fran?ºois Couperin, to name but the most prominent. Whatchance against such competition in the music-history stakes is there for acomposer whose output is exclusively for an obsolete instrument? To makematters worse, Weiss's music is entirely preserved in lute tablature, an arcaneform of notation that, outside the domain of purely academic study, demands thereconstruction of historically-accurate instruments and the relearning ofplaying techniques that are only hinted at in contemporary documents andtreatises. Only now, perhaps, with the steady progress in lute-playing (andlute-making) that has gone on since the 1970s, can the listener begin toappreciate what is most special in the music of this highly imaginative andsensitive composer. This is music that, like that for keyboard by Scarlatti orCouperin, or for solo violin or cello by Bach, is not only technicallydemanding and utterly idiomatic for its instrument, but often highlyexpressive, with some wonderful and characteristic dramatic gestures.
Weiss's music differsfrom Bach's in some significant ways. The most immediately striking disparityis in the length of the movements. In this he strayed much further than Bachfrom the classic French models that one might expect from a lutenist raised inthe seventeenth century tradition, basically a French one. Weiss, however, hadone great formative experience denied to Bach he spent the years 1708-14 inItaly in the service of the Polish former royal family, at a time when Italianmusic was in the ascendancy, and Italian opera in particular was the rage ofEurope. It seems that this Italian period, working alongside musicians of thecalibre of the two Scarlattis, Alessandro and Domenico, and the great Corelli,and probably visiting Venice to hear Vivaldi, was crucial in forming the uniquestyle of Weiss's lute music. In it, we hear not just the formal balance andsophistication of French music, but also the robust architecture of Corelli'sconcertos, the dramatic harmonic shifts and expressive cantabile melodiesassociated with the recitatives and arias of Scarlatti's operas; to this can beadded a ready familiarity with the energetic and imaginative idioms ofVivaldi's music. In combining French and Italian idioms, Weiss frequently wentbeyond the formal choreographic restraints of the dance-movements of theconventional baroque suite. It seems highly unlikely that anyone ever attemptedto dance to Weiss's music, and it is most improbable that he was employed toperform in dance-ensembles. Hiscourantes, modeled on the Italian corrente rather than the Frenchvariety, are often virtuosic in character, and frequently extend to over eightymeasures, a procedure utterly alien to Bach. Minuets, too, can sometimes be ofunusual extent, with a bewildering wealth of new melodic ideas presented insuccession; again, the contrast with Bach could hardly be greater.
The music hererecorded spans a wide period of Weiss's career, although it is hard to bedefinite about dating. Sonata No. 2 in D major probably comes from theearliest years of Weiss's employment at the Dresden Court (1717-50), since itis found near the beginning of the London MS, which contains a number of datedpieces in roughly chronological order from 1717 to 1721. The Prelude tothis sonata had some popularity as a separate item, and is a nice example ofthe genre, not too technically taxing for the amateur player, but with enoughharmonic interest and dramatic twists to make it a satisfying challenge. The Allemandeand Courante are in very contrasting styles, with the solemn memoryof the former's gravity and langorous melodies being lightly dispelled by therapid fingerwork of the lively Courante, which imitates violinistic bariolage(a rapid string-crossing technique) in a perfect adaptation to the lute.
One of Weiss's characteristically humorous Bourrees (this French genrewas derived from a rustic peasant dance) is followed by a beautiful Sarabandein which Weiss's expressive gift for melody and sonority is prominent. Asimple Menuet and an ingenious Gigue complete a sonata which isone of several in which Weiss explores the strong and bright sound of D majoron the baroque lute.
The sound of the luteat this period is quite strongly affected by the key of the music, since therank of bass strings always needed to be tuned to the scale of the tonic key.
The first chords of Sonata No. 27 in C minor, probably from the early1720s, reveal a much darker colour, with a wistful, almost tragic aspect to themusic. The Allemande uses the lutenistic convention sometimes called thestyle brise (broken style), in which chords are continually spread, withmelodic notes in all voices sometimes being delayed a little to expressiveeffect. Unusually, there is no Courante in either version of the sonata,which continues with a Gavotte in which the gravity of the music isfurther emphasized by its low tessitura. The Rondeau that follows is ina style that may pay homage to the earlier lutenist, Count Losy, who wrote anumber of such pieces; it, too, seems unable to shake off the ominous qualityof C minor. By contrast, the lovely Sarabande, an excellent example ofWeiss's cantabile (singing) style, is an interlude in the sunny relativemajor key of E flat. With the Menuet, we return again to the depths of Cminor and again Weiss keeps the music low on the instrument; this is possibly theleast cheerful Menuet in the lute repertory. The sonata's finalmovements are a Rigaudon and an Angloise, the second of which,being in E flat, is lighter in character, although the music is still low inrange. Paradoxically, this Angloise (English dance) is entitled Labelle Tiroloise ('The beautiful Tyrolean girl'), a confusion ofnationalities that should not prevent us enjoying one of Weiss's mostinteresting middle-period sonatas.
With the Sonata No.
35 in D minor we move quite a long way, chronologically, to Weiss's lastcreative period. Assuming, as we are forced to do, that he wrote the piece inits surviving fair autograph copy soon after its composition, we can surmisethat it may have been composed as late