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Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin BWV 1001-1006
Hopkinson Smith (Lute)
Hopkinson Smith’s Sonatas & Partitas (BWV 1001-1006)

T-3

Bach: Sonatas & Partitas (lute versions)

Sonatas & Partitas for solo violin BWV 1001-1006, arranged for Baroque Lute by Hopkinson Smith [16:09, 28:34, 21:35, 29:10, 21:00, 20:16]

Hopkinson Smith (13-course Baroque Lute by Joël van Lennep, Boston 1980)

Auvidis - Naïve 8678

Sep-Nov 1999

2-CD / TT: 137:02

Recorded at Mandelsloh, Germany.
Review: Sonatas & Partitas for Violin performed on Lute by Hopkinson Smith [K. McElhearn]
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Hopkinson Smith’s Sonatas & Partitas (BWV 1001-1006)

Craig Schweickert wrote (March 10, 2002):
This isn't a review, folks. It's a rave.

After reading Brad's recommendation of Hopkinson Smith's recording of the lute versions of the sonatas and partitas for solo violin - a disk I'd had my eye on for a while - I picked up a copy yesterday (Astrée Naïve E 8678). Have listened to it three times now and my reaction, stronger each time around, is simply wow.

The arrangements - Smith's own except for BWV 1006, which is closely based on Bach's - are superb. Although the music has been entirely rethought in terms of the instrument, the many added notes (mostly filled-out harmonies and ornamentation) and occasionally fast tempos are never detrimental to its expression. On the contrary, the performance brings out facets of the music I'd never heard before, including voices the violin version only hints at. Any prior doubts about the lute's "pointillism" not being suited to the sometimes sustained lines of the original quickly evaporated, a development probably due to the brillance of the arrangements and the fact that, unlike a violinist, Smith can let a string resonate while he plays others. Of course, there are times when Smith uses the lute's unbowed sound to great effect - for example, in some of the variations of BWV 1004's famous Chaconne, where "strumming" and plucking generate tremendous rhythmic drive; in the Double of BWV 1002, where sharp chords mark sections and clarify the movement's structure; and at innumerable places throughout the set where the harp-like delicacy of the ornaments and "accompaniments" takes the breath away. Need I mention that Smith's virtuosity - never mere show, always at the service of the music - is equally breath-taking? To all these felicities, add a gorgeous 13-course baroque lute (Joel van Lennep, Boston, 1980), a short but informative liner-note apologia by the performer and flawless engineering by Astrée and you have a winner. My only complaint is the price: C$63 (including sales taxes) for two disks. Ouch!

While I'm not about to stop listening to Kuijken and van Dael in these works, Smith's recording is certain to be one I reach for often, especially when a version less austere and more beguiling than the original appeals. And I suspect that forced to choose a single set of the S&Ps to take with me to a desert island, this insightful performance would be it.

*************************

Related question:
In his liner note Smith mentions that "Bach's student Johann Friedrich Reichardt in writing about the six suites for unaccompanied violin states that 'their composer often played them on the clavichord, adding as much in the nature of harmony as he found necessary. In so doing, he recognized the necessity of a sounding harmony, such as in compositions of his type [in their original form for violin] he could not fully achieve'." Are there any worthy recordings of the S&Ps played on a clavichord?

Another related question:
Has anyone here heard Smith's recording of the cello suites? Impressions?

Somewhat related question/rant:
When is EMI going to get around to reissuing Paul O'Dette and Smith's Italian Lute Duets in an affordable CD format? (It was included in one of the 5-CD volumes of the complete Reflexe series issued by German EMI a couple of years ago. I couldn't bring myself to fork over C$125 for the box, although the performance's attractions are such that I seriously considered doing so.) Tuneful, joyful, undemanding yet rewarding close attention, beautifully recorded in a Swiss church (with birds occasionally joining in), the disk seemed to cast a sunny glow whenever it was played. It appears I'm not the only one who feels that way, either. In 1999, I ran into O'Dette in a record store. After a few formalities I mentioned that for years I'd been looking for the CD reissue of one of his recordings. "Let me guess," he replied, "Italian Lute Duets." As I picked up my jaw, he explained that he receives far more queries about it than any other recording in his very large discography and then went on to describe the many felicities that surrounded the recording sessions: it was both "Hoppy" and his first recording and the only one they've made together; it occurred during a spate of glorious weather on the numerologically significant date of 5 June 1978 (5/6/78); and the sessions were interrupted by the birth of Smith's first child. That treasures like this and, say, Flagstad's performance of Sibelius's Höstkväll are available only as part of expensive, multidisk sets borders on the criminal.

 

Feedback to the Review

Kirk McElhearn wrote (March 10, 2002):
Craig Schweickert wrote:
< While I'm not about to stop listening to Kuijken and van Dael in these works, Smith's recording is certain to be one I reach for often, especially when a version less austere and more beguiling than the original appeals. And I suspect that forced to choose a single set of the S&Ps to take with me to a desert island, this insightful performance would be it. >
Hmmm... while it's interesting, I am much less overwhelmed.

See my review at: http://www.mcelhearn.com/bach.html
Also: Sonatas & Partitas for Violin performed on Lute by Hopkinson Smith

Peter Bright wrote (March 10, 2002):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Personally, I haven't yet found a version on a period instrument that can compare with the old Grumiaux recording on the modern violin - haven't heard the Hopkinson Smith – it sounds quite interesting though. I quite like the transcriptions of some of these played by Robert Hill too.

Craig Schweickert wrote (March 11, 2002):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Actually I did read your review (it's also in the BRML archive) before setting out to buy the set, Kirk, and I even considered adding a disclaimer to my original post to save you the bother of replying. ;)

Aside from repeating that there's no disputing taste, I'm unsure how to respond. Maybe point out that many of the things you object to in the performance are precisely what I find attractive?

For example, you write that the music doesn't sound like the S&Ps, that Smith has "imposed luth phrasing on [the] music" and that the transcriptions sap works of their energy and force. Yet the third partita (BWV 1006) is more or less Bach's arrangement, so we can assume he approved, and as the Reichardt quote makes clear, Bach played the S&Ps on the clavichord (a rather lute-like instrument in terms of scale and dynamics) filling out the harmonies as he went. To my ears, Smith's arrangements of BWV 1001-1005 are idiomatic and convincing, securely grounded in his knowledge of the instrument, period practice and the composer. No, they don't sound like the violin versions; considering the radically different natures of the instruments, it would be surprising if they did. But that's not a black mark against the lute versions. I like what Smith has to say about this in his note: "A third reason that seems to open the way for the lute to approach the Sontatas and Partitas on its own terms are the numerous examples where the music is conceived on such an abstract plane that the score already appears to be a kind of adaptation for the violin. As so often in Bach's instrumental writing, the music seems to come from beyond - occasionally from far beyond - the instruments with which it is associated."

One point on which we agree is that the polyphony is spelled out in ways it isn't in the violin versions. (Smith is also on board: "the lute can very often sustain the voices in different registers, whereas on the violin, of course, as soon as the bow has left the string, the sound only remains in the listener's imagination. This interior retaining of a note or musical line depends much on the violinist's intensity and skill. ... [On the lute] the relative ease of the voices' sounding together means that this complexity of 'imagined' polyphony is not nearly as demanding for the listener.") Unlike you, I don't see this as negative. First, Smith is filling out - not inventing - the harmonies and base line; he's realizing what's harmonically implicit in the music, just as Bach did in arranging parts of the S&Ps for the lute, organ and other instruments. Second, one of the attractions of the disk is hearing *how* Smith realizes those harmonies and discovering ones that were beyond my imagination, that I never "heard" when listening to violin versions (I concede that your harmonic imagination may be more vivid than mine).

You know, I'd also considered adding a second disclaimer to my review: prospective buyers should understand that they might need to "unlearn" the violin versions before they can appreciate the lute ones. On the lute, the music is less severe and superficially dramatic than on the violin. Partly it's the filled-out harmonies, partly it's the nature of the instrument (limited dynamic range, no harshness, plucked not pushed, in addition to the aforementioned qualities). But, I'd claim, once the ear adjusts to the lute's more intimate scale, the drama is just as alive and the music's structure often clearer.

It's odd that the very things that bother you throw new light on the works for me. Smith makes me hear and think about the music in new ways. That's already justification enough for a performance. That he also succeeds in charming my ear is frosting on the cake.

PS For what it's worth, I second your opinion of the Daniels/Biondi Vivaldi disk. Yet another small-scaled, insightful, ear-charming performance.

Pete Blue wrote (March 11, 2002):
[To Craig Schweickert] If you're a fan of plucked Bach in the solo violin S&Ps, the Smith is terrific. I used to love my old American Decca mono LP of Segovia playing the Chaconne. But I think all transcriptions of this music have been rendered obsolete by the curved bow version of Rudolf Gaehler on the German label Arte Nova.

Just about every violinist who has played the S&P, especially in the HIP Era, attempts to compensate for the need to arpeggiate the double, triple, quadruple stops by speeding up the tempos. Gaehler, by virtue of his ability to play actual chords, is able to slow down the tempos, with revelatory consequences. I think he renders most (not all, not my favorites!) other S&P recordings dispensable.

Case in point: the BWV 1001 Fuga, IMO one of the high points of Western music. This movement impresses no matter who plays it -- even when the usually elegant Grumiaux slashes away at the first four notes like they're Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But listen to the way Gaehler slows them down, giving them their full value, no more no less, and thus their full power, because he knows that in what follows there is no longer any need to compensate for the limitations of the straight bow.

I still have indispensable favorites -- for me, if for no one else: Sergiu Luca on Elektra Nonesuch for sheer otherworldly transcendent beauty, Elizabeth Wallfisch for extracting so much of the greatness without feeling the need to overlay star personality, and Szigeti in some early single-movement recordings (not his complete S&P). But Gaehler has changed everything for me.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (March 11, 2002):
Craig Schweickert wrote:
< It's odd that the very things that bother you throw new light on the works for me. Smith makes me hear and think about the music in new ways. That's already justification enough for a performance. That he also succeeds in charming my ear is frosting on the cake. >
Indeed, if it can do that, then it is worth it. As you also said, it is all up to individual taste. I just felt that I was wanting more, much more, after listening to this set. Note that I haven't listened to it in about a year - since I bought it and listened to it extensively. I'll take it out today and put it on - maybe my opinion will change.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (March 11, 2002):
Yes, I am listening again to this set that Craig has praised so. But I cannot enjoy this recording. Smith's rhythms are wooden, they are all off. His approach to the presto of BWV 1001 is so out of kilter that I wonder what I am listening to. He is deconstructing the rhythm of this movement, in such a way as to make it unrecognizable. I also find his transitions very unequal. In this type of work, I find the transition between movements – the difference in rhythm and tempo - very important. Smith seems to totally ignore this, making rough, brusque transitions.

So, to compare, I put on the Paul Galbraith recording on 8-string guitar. Where Smith walks, Galbraith soars, his rhythms are so natural and unpretentious. In addition, the sound of his unique instrument is so lovely that I just want to close my eyes and listen.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with the Galbraith, I will repost my review of it.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 11, 2002):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Hmm. I would say Smith's rhythm is anything but "wooden." He breathes naturally the way a singer (or wind player) would, subtly bending the notes around that. I listened to that presto of BWV 1001 again just now, and found it to be a natural organic experience, no preservatives, all music. It flows and seems real.

Then I listened to the Galbraith excerpt of the same thing on a web sample. I was reminded immediately of the movie I watched yesterday, "Topsy-Turvy," about Gilbert and Sullivan. One of the male leads is complaining about the silk robe he will have to wear in "The Mikado," and insists, "I will never go onstage without my corset!" The costumer and Gilbert try to talk him out of it, that the hang of of the fabric is not natural over a corset (the female costumer similarly tries to convince her actresses), and it almost comes to blows: the actors don't think they'll cut a fine figure unless they're all bound up in their corsets. That's what I hear in Galbraith's "rhythm"...it's not rhythm at all, but stiff meter that never breathes a good healthy deep breath. Rhythm is music. Meter is not music. Blades of grass growing in a field are all different one another, though they share a resemblance. They bend separately when a breeze comes through. Regularly spaced notes are just marks on paper, typeset by a machine, and are not the music.

I listened to the Galbraith a second time, and it just sounds to me like so many notes arranged end-to-end. I was watching a Krispy doughnut-making machine a few days ago, and it (even being merely a machine) was introducing much more irregularity than this. The interesting thing was seeing which doughnuts fall slightly before others, and which ones might almost get stuck, and which one bounce three times in the oil as opposed to two or four. The fun is in seeing how a regularity organizes a natural chaos, with some of the chaos still peeking through. There's a dynamic process there to watch and enjoy, something happening. If everything's the same, it's dull, even though the basic sound (as with Galbraith's guitar here) is lovely.

 

Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin BWV 1001-1006: Details
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
S&P - B. Cruft | S&P - R. Gaehler | S&P - H. Hahn | S&P - S. Kuijken | S&P - I. Matthews | S&P Guitar - P. Galbraith [K. McElhearn] | S&P Guitar - H. Smith [K. McElhearn] | S&P Guitar - H. Smith [Schweickert]
General Discussions:
Part 1 | MD - Chaconne
Discussions of Individual Recordings:
S&P - H. Hahn

Hopkinson Smith: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Sonatas & Partitas for Violin performed on Lute by Hopkinson Smith [K. McElhearn] | Hopkinson Smith’s Sonatas & Partitas (BWV 1001-1006) [C. Schweickert]

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Last update: ýJune 20, 2009 ý17:49:08