WEISS: Lute Sonatas Nos. 38 and 43 (Robert Barto) (Naxos: 8.554833)
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Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750)
Lute Sonatas, Volume 5
In the years during which this series of recordings has been appearing, Silvius Leopold Weiss has begun at last to be recognised as a major figure in German eighteenth-century music. During this time research into his life and his music has not stood still. A few new biographical facts have emerged, in particular about his early career before 1717, when he joined the dazzling musical establishment of the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony in Dresden. Most importantly, Frank Legl was the first to recognise the significance of a short posthumous notice published about the famous lutenist in Johann Christoph Gottscheds Handlexicon oder Kurzgefaßtes Wörterbuch der schönen Wissenschaft und freyen Künste (Leipzig, 1760). This reveals that Weiss was in fact born in 1687, a year later than was previously thought, in the small town of Grottkau (today called Grodkow in Polish) south-east of Breslau (Wroclaw), the capital of the province of Silesia, rather than in the city itself, as had hitherto been assumed by music-historians. The reliability of the new evidence is supported by the fact that Gottscheds wife, Luise Adelgunde Victoria Gottsched (1713-62), identified as the author of this dictionary entry as well as others on musical matters, was herself known as a fine lutenist well acquainted with the composer, who visited her at home in Leipzig on at least one occasion.
Also emerging from Luise Gottscheds contribution to her husbands Wörterbuch, this time in the entry on the lute, is confirmation of a common assumption, that Silvius Weiss was the main instigator of two essential modifications to the classic French form of the lute. These were: first, the addition, some time around 1717, of two extra pairs of bass strings, turning the eleven-course lute that had been standard for over half a century, into the thirteen-course instrument; secondly, probably around 1732, a further modification which involved mounting the bass strings on a second pegbox in a theorbo-like extension to the lutes neck. This gave additional power and definition to the bass strings, while giving the instrument additional resonance, thus aiding the production of the legato or cantabile style of playing for which Weiss was famed.
In fact, for most of his pieces, we can usually determine which of the three forms of lute Weiss was writing for. Technical features of the music sometimes render it unperformable, exactly as written, on the wrong instrument, and there are passages where the music seems to have been modified, not necessarily by Weiss himself, to take advantage of a later form of the instrument; bass notes are sometimes found written a note lower than is strictly necessary, or have sometimes even been added in the lower octave.
Of the three works on this recordings, only one has a precise date (the Hartig Tombeau), but we can make some informed guesses about their relative chronology. The C major sonata is one of a number of pieces that are written for the thirteen-course lute, but in a transitional style that does not exploit the extended instruments capabilities as thoroughly as the late music. In fact, the sonata could be played with rather little modification on the eleven-course instrument. This makes it highly unlikely it was meant for the larger, theorbo-like thirteen-course instrument used by Weiss from around 1732. It appears in the famous Dresden collection of manuscripts in Weisss beautiful fair-copy autograph. Weiss himself did not provide the prelude, which was copied in later by the compiler of the manuscript collection; it is one of a number of rather short preludes added in this way whose authenticity has been called into question on this account, however, this one is stylistically compatible with Weisss authentic preludes, although it simply consists of a few bars by way of brief introduction rather than an improvised adventure in harmonic exploration as the longer ones tend to be. The Allemande is built largely on restatements of the motif announced in the opening bars, which recurs in different keys through the piece. A similar restraint in terms of musical form is also present in the Courante, where Weisss typical device of a reprise of the opening towards the end of the piece is slightly disguised by omitting the first two bars, almost as if to tease a listener who is listening out for the opening. The deceptively simple-sounding Sarabande also found its way into a lute manuscript now in Moscow. It may have found its way to Russia with Timophei Bielogradsky, whom Tsarina Anna Ivanovna sent to Dresden in 1733 to study the lute with Weiss and became a highly-acclaimed pupil. A cautious dating to the late 1720s or first years of the 1730s thus seems appropriate. The sonata continues with a Minuet in which the opening pair of answering two-bar phrases recurs in various keys, sometimes together, sometimes separated, showing a pleasure in playing with the listeners expectations that must have arisen from Weisss many hours of improvisation in front of a rapt and appreciative court audience. The exuberant Presto, as so often in Weisss finales, is strongly redolent of the concerto, a form at which Weiss seems to have excelled, although today we have no complete examples from his hand. Luise Gottsched left no fewer than ten of his lute concertos of which no trace remains.
Among Weisss most famous pieces in his lifetime (it is mentioned by Luise Gottsched) is a Tombeau, or memorial, composed on the death of Count Jan Anton Losy, a famous noble Bohemian lutenist of the previous generation. In the same manuscript, now in the British Library in London but probably originating from Prague, is another Tombeau, this time for an unidentified member of a noble Prague family, the Hartigs, who were well-known as supporters and practitioners of music in the city. Composed in 1719, two years before the Losy Tombeau, it shares some of its characteristics, notably the use of an extremely unusual flat key for the lute, in this case E flat minor. This necessitates a de-tuning of most of the lutes bass strings, giving the piece a veiled quality intensifying its very evident quality of mourning.
With the large-scale Sonata in A minor, No. 43, we encounter one of Weisss latest compositions. Possibly composed as late as the 1740s, a remarkable series of around a dozen works sums up everything a master lutenist can achieve. Of masterly construction, and deeply-felt expressive power, these works do not give up their charms easily, being among the most technically-challenging music in the lutes repertory. The sonatas opening Allemande, although marked Andante, seems essentially care-laden; although the vigour of the Courante seems at first to shake off sadness, eventually it, too, plunges into remote keys which seem to belie its initial air of optimism. Weisss sense of humour seems to re-emerge in the infectiously lively Bourrée, while the Sarabande in C major, again marked Andante, is imbued with an air of serenity. The pair of Minuets, in A minor and A major, respectively, maintains this more optimistic outlook, while the Presto finale is another frankly virtuoso movement of great technical difficulty but enormous verve, again in the concerto style, which reminds us yet again what a great performer Weiss must have been.