WEISS: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 8 (Norbert Kraft & Bonnie Silver/ Robert Barto) (Naxos: 8.570109)
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Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1687–1750)
Lute Sonatas, Volume 8
The compositions of Silvius Leopold Weiss, the greatest lute-player of his own time, and one of the greatest who ever lived, are principally gathered in two large manuscript collections, in the British Library, London, and in the Saxon State Library, Dresden. Together, these collections contain over half of his surviving music; we currently know a staggering total of around 750 movements. Despite this prolific output, amateur lutenists found Weiss's music notoriously hard to find even during his lifetime. We do not know if, as an employee of the Saxon Elector and Polish King from 1718 until his death, he was at some point explicitly forbidden to distribute his compositions outside Court, as some of his colleagues are said to have been, but this is a distinct possibility, supported by the fact that a few of his early works, those from before 1718, survive in multiple copies, whereas his late music (from after the mid-1720s) is always found as unica. In any case, we are fortunate that a few enthusiasts with good contacts to Weiss managed to assemble large collections of this kind. Unfortunately, in neither case, London or Dresden, is the compiler explicitly identified, and a good deal of scholarly effort has recently gone into tracking down these elusive eighteenth-century collectors.
The Dresden collection is the more miscellaneous, in that it was evidently assembled from different sources, possibly partly purchased over some years from a Leipzig music-dealer. There is no doubt, however, that Weiss himself was in direct contact with the compiler, who certainly had lessons with him; at the very end of his life Weiss made several pencilled annotations in a rather shaky hand on some of the pieces, although he did not correct the errors in some of the less well copied movements. The owner may have been the Saxon court official Friedrich Wilhelm Raschke (1706-1761), who is known to have owned two valuable lutes ideally suited for playing this music. His own copying, or possibly that of an expert musical secretary, is meticulous, and was probably done directly from the master's autograph manuscripts, of which several examples are included in the collection. In one case, Sonata No. 36 in D minor, he seems to have deliberately imitated the handwriting of Weiss himself; at first sight this fine, late work looks like an autograph, although it has suffered rather badly from water damage caused during World War II.
Although not as extended as the others, Sonata 36 is stylistically rather typical of Weiss's late sonatas. The Allemande opens with a dotted figure somewhat in the manner of an entrée or an overture, but soon settles down to become a typical Weiss allemande, the consistent three-part texture of which is suffused with the cantabile style for which he was renowned. The energetic Courante that follows is simpler in harmony, but full of an engaging rhythmic drive, as is the Bourrée, in which Weiss's sparkling wit abundantly surfaces. The next two movements, the Sarabande and Menuet are shorter than their counterparts in some of the composer's other late sonatas, and present a somewhat uncomplicated surface, while the closing Allegro is typical of several of Weiss's presto finales, with an energetic and largely unvarying sixteenth-note (semiquaver) motion highly reminiscent of the concerto, a form in which Weiss was adept.
The sarabande of Sonata 36 is in the relative major key, in this case F major, and is serene and untroubled in nature. It seems that this key held similar associations for many composers of the time; Johann Mattheson (1713) felt it was 'capable of expressing the most beautiful sentiments in the world, whether they be generosity, constancy, love … all in a natural way with an incomparable ease, which requires no effort', and a recent analysis shows that J. S. Bach's cantata arias in this key tend to express sentiments of heavenly peace and serenity. Even Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart in his Ideen zu einer Ästhetik der Tonkunst of 1784, published posthumously in 1806, identified the key with 'complaisance and calm'.
Weiss's Sonata 19 in F major, from the London manuscript and dated 1719, has much of this character, with little trace of the anguish induced by his more adventurous harmonic experiments. A short prelude prepares us suitably, without any chromatic adventures and never deviating far from the home key. In the Allemande, a more or less unbroken stream of cantabile melody unfolds; the Courante is more vigorous, and again we see traces of influence from the concerto in the short unisono-like passages that end each half of the movement. As is so often the case, the folk origins of the Bourrée are not far from the surface; Weiss clearly much enjoyed the country dances of his native Silesia. The Sarabande makes play of a few characteristic rhythmic patterns rather more than many others by Weiss, as does the Menuet, which is a very simple yet elegant example of this most courtly of dances. The final Gigue is unusual, not in its typical jig rhythm, but in the extent to which Weiss maintains (or cleverly gives the impression of maintaining) a series of contrapuntal entries in the manner typical of the keyboard gigues of J.S. Bach and others; this is unusual in lute music, where counterpoint is generally hard to sustain in fast movements. Here, as in several of the other movements, the tablature indicates the player should perform a petite reprise of the last few measures.
We now know that the original owner of the London manuscript, a single bound volume formerly decorated with a painted coat of arms, was Johann Christian Anthoni von Adlersfeld (c. 1680 – after 1737), a Prague businessman who was raised to the nobility in 1724. Anthoni was a music-lover prominent in the Prague Music Academy and the patron of the German composer G.H. Stölzel during his time in the city from 1715 to 1717, the latter being the year of the first dated compositions in the London manuscript. This manuscript, too, contains much music written in by Weiss himself, and probably stems from lessons given to Anthoni during visits to Prague; other pieces were sent by the composer from Dresden or elsewhere, the latest being dated 1724.
The autograph of Sonata 34 in D minor, from the Dresden manuscript and one of Weiss's most popular works with modern players of guitar or lute since it was first published by the pioneering lutenist Hans Neeman just before World War II, is also associated with teaching. Although it was entirely washed out by water from fire-hoses during the bombardment of Dresden in 1945, Neeman could read a note written on the manuscript: 'This is the first I studied with Mr Weiss'. While it is indeed a suitable work for a relative beginner, with quite short movements and few technical challenges, it is a fine work, well repaying any modern player's study. The Prelude presents an extended chord-sequence in idiomatic written-out arpeggio style in which the simple texture hides the care with which Weiss pays attention to part-writing; in these respects it reminds one of J.S. Bach, although with Weiss the spirit of improvisation is particularly evident. A basic three-part texture, with chains of melodic sequences, is maintained in the Allemande, perhaps the most typica