WEISS: Lute Sonatas Nos. 7, 23, and 45 (Robert Barto) (Naxos: 8.555722)
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Silvius Leopold Weiss (1686-1750)
Lute Sonatas, Volume 6
The three sonatas recorded here span the whole of thecareer of the great lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss. Thecomposer himself dated the Sonata in C minor(Smith/Crawford No. 7) as one of his earliest works,from the first decade of the eighteenth century, while theSonata No. 45 in A major is one of a series of matureworks which may have been completed as late as the1740s. The Sonata No. 23 in B flat major comes from aperiod roughly midway between the other two, probablycomposed not long after Weiss's appointment to theDresden court in 1718, a position he retained until hisdeath in 1750.
The magnificent A major sonata is one of Weiss'scrowning achievements as a composer for the lute, andtherefore among the greatest works for the instrumentfrom any period. His choice of the Italian wordIntroduzzione for the sonata's opening movement, in theform of a French overture, is no mere whim; it issuffused with the spirit and style of the advanced Italianorchestral music favoured in Dresden rather than theformality and decorum of the French. The central fugalsection presents not just a single theme, as in aconventional French overture (Weiss left several ofthese for solo lute), but also an accompanying countersubjectwhich makes use of repeated notes in the mannerof the latest galant music from Italy. This section hasmuch of the flavour of the concerto about it, just as someorchestral overtures by Telemann do, and Weiss relishesthe opportunity for a little virtuoso display in the courseof a movement of great energy and wit.
The following Courante is one of his longest,perhaps the longest courante ever composed. At 183bars it far exceeds the normal extent of the dancemovements of the old suite form. Compare, for example,the 49 bars of the early C minor Courante included here,itself notably longer than most courantes composed byhis contemporaries such as Bach or Handel. As was hishabit in these extended dances, Weiss traces a kind offantasia-like exploration of a few musical ideas, whichhe subjects to ever-evolving transformation andmodulation in a way entirely his own, yet firmlydelineating the structure of the movement with greatclarity. In others of his later works we find abstractmovement-titles (Allegro, Adagio, and so on) rather thandance-names; the connection with the old French courtlydances is here stretched about as far as it could be. Thesame might be said for the somewhat shorter Bourree,which might easily be imagined shorn of its danceassociations with an abstract title such as Allegro. YetWeiss retains the feeling of the dance throughout thiscatchy movement. The Sarabande, in the relative key ofF sharp minor, is, unusually, in 6/4 metre, but is markedGrave, lest a player be tempted to confuse its rhythmwith the siciliano which it superficially resembles. HereWeiss exploits his famous skill in the cantabile style byusing discreet embellishment of a singing melody over asimple bass line rather than using a densely expressivethree-part texture as he often does in such slowmovements. The following Menuet has a rhythmicswing which tends to disguise Weiss's characteristicallyasymmetrical phrase-lengths. It is built on a smallnumber of musical ideas, but just as one feels sure aphrase is ending the melody will take a new turn, as ifshowing the listener that there is always something newto discover in the basic musical material. Theconcluding Presto maintains the same livelyspontaneity, but has the driving momentum of aconcerto finale; just as with the opening movement ofthis wonderful sonata, one can easily imagine it in anorchestral setting.
The Sonata No. 7 in C minor survives in twomanuscript copies; its Allemande also appears as anisolated movement in a third manuscript. In one of thecomplete copies the composer himself has written in anumber of corrections; to the other, which is actuallyrather inaccurately copied, he added, apparently near thevery end of his life, a pencil note, Von Ano 6. InD??sseldorf. Ergo Nostra giuvent?? comparisce (From1706 in D??sseldorf, thus our youth presents itself). Thisconfirms that it is one of his earliest survivingcompositions, a fact further supported by theAllemande's appearance in a lute book which can beshown to have been compiled in Rome and Veniceduring the period when Weiss was in Italy serving theformer Polish Royal Family, between 1710 and 1714.
The Allemande is a grave movement in a style which,though clearly Weiss's own, owes much to earliermodels, notably to works by the French luthistes of themid- to late-seventeenth century. The spirit and style ofthe late works of Jacques Gallot (d. before 1699) seemto be present throughout the piece. One work inparticular by Gallot seems to have fascinated Weiss:there exist two separate arrangements by him indifferent keys of the melancholy Allemande, L'Amantmalheureux, probably a late work, and notable for itsprominent use of a descending four-note figure that wasa common feature of baroque laments. This lamentfigure,which suffuses Weiss's Allemande too, wasespecially associated with the instrumental genre knownas the tombeau (tomb), usually composed in memory ofa great person. An anonymous Tombeau pourl'Empereur Joseph, also in C minor, and also the firstmember of a suite, can be found in two Austrianmanuscripts, and bears a family resemblance to theWeiss piece, though it cannot have been composedbefore 1711, when Joseph I died. This possibly suggestseither that Weiss's Allemande enjoyed a good deal ofcurrency in the first decade of the eighteenth century or,perhaps more likely, that both works drew on a commonstock of lament-material, as did the Gallot Allemande. Inboth works there are fleeting references in the ensuingmovements to the opening Allemande. Weiss's visit tothe Palatine Electoral court in D??sseldorf in 1706 isconfirmed by surviving documents, and took placeprecisely a year after the death, on 5th May, 1705, of themusic-loving Emperor Leopold I, before whom thelutenist is known to have performed on the lute as a childprodigy at the age of seven in 1694 or 1695. This raisesthe distinct possibility that the Allemande was composedand performed by him at the Palatine court as a tombeaufor the late Emperor after the normal year of officialmourning. The final movement of the sonata, the Gigue,contains a musical reference to Vienna; its openingmotif, which does not recur in exact form elsewhere inthe piece, can be found in several lute gigues from theseventeenth century, two of which bear the title, Lescloches de Vienne (The Bells of Vienna), furthercircumstantial evidence for an Imperial connection, onemight think.
The last sonata recorded here, Sonata No. 23 in Bflat major, comes from Weiss's middle period, not longafter his Dresden appointment, perhaps around 1720.
Although the single surviving copy is for the larger formof the lute, with thirteen courses or pairs of strings, thatWeiss himself introduced around this time, the two extranotes in the bass that are essential, for instance, in thelate Sonata in A major, when they occur, infrequently, inthis sonata, can quite easily be played an octave higherwithout any perceptible damage to the music. Thissuggests that it was composed for the earlier elevencourseinstrument, which remained standard in Germanyuntil the 1740s. As the title written at the head of themusic, Divertimento ?á Solo, might suggest, theindividual movements of this sonata are modest in scale,though they are assembled into a ten-movementstructure which in performance lasts about as long as anormal Weiss suite of about six movements. Theopening prelude does little more than set the scene byintroducing the key and allowing the player to check thelute's tuning. The French title of the Entree reminds usthat we are here in a world where courtly ballets, by thistime usually in the contex