Silvius Leopold Weiss was a near-exact contemporary of Johann
Sebastian Bach; the composers were born two years apart (Bach
first) and died three months apart in 1750 (Bach first again).
Weiss devoted his life to playing and teaching the lute, penning
an extraordinary series of lute sonatas which this Naxos project
attempts to record in full. It is a daunting task, given that
the website slweiss.com lists 98 works in the series - though
several of them are lost. Luckily, the series has so far proved
that Weiss’s lute music is worthy of the treatment, and of the
attention of world-class lutenist Robert Barto. I now own four
volumes of the series, Vols. 7-10, and each whets my appetite
for the next.
Weiss’s sonatas are, for the most part, devoted to traditional
structure in name but surprisingly daring in actual content.
They bring the usual baroque mix of allemandes, courantes, minuets,
and sarabandes, but Weiss is constantly tinkering with these
forms, expanding them to hold his own spacious imagination for
melodic material and emotional import. Sometimes, as on this
disc, courantes take on the tenor and length of fantasies, and
previous issues have included minuets with multiple trios, movements
of unending melody-spinning, pedal points and counterpoint,
and a sarabande (on Volume 7) which begins, trickily, in disguise
as a minuet.
As for the emotional tenor of the sonatas, they range from introverted,
brooding works like the two sonatas in D minor on Volume 8 to
sunny salon music, always eloquent, written to give the player
modest technical demands and even greater expressive ones. Robert
Barto has been consistently up to the task, with grace and a
beautifully improvisatory approach which has, in past volumes,
made me think of Weiss as a sort of baroque Chopin.
For this tenth volume, Barto brings us two of Weiss’s more outgoing
works, beginning with the Sonata No. 28 in F major, Le fameux
Corsaire, an outdoorsy charmer of a piece with lively dance
movements and, one imagines fancifully, a fresh breeze of sea
air. The subtitle, however, seems to have arisen not because
the music has anything to do with pirates or the ocean, but,
perhaps, simply because it was a catchy name. Who knows? Maybe
a corsair with a patient ear for this type of musical good cheer
would be happy to call it his own.
The Sonata No. 40, in C, is an epic of the form, nearing the
40 minute mark! But Weiss never wastes his time, whether in
the gently rocking courante or the paysanne, the shortest movement
but one of the most tuneful. The sonata’s eight-minute sarabande
never grows old, a testament to Weiss’s skill in creating and
then skilfully varying his melodic material. Movements like
these emphasize Barto’s own instinct for quasi-improvisatory
playing; he makes the carefully ornamented movement seem like
a fresh invention of his own. And the equally long finale, which
begins with a strong sense of purpose and never relents, made
me glad that Barto honors every repeat in these scores. As the
movement wends its way to a deeply satisfying conclusion, with
a wonderful sense of homecoming, I immediately wished I could
hear those last few moments again. Wish granted: the repeat
let me hear it all once more!
The Tombeau sur la mort de M. Comte de Logy provides
a moving close to the CD; here, to commemorate the death of
one of Europe’s premiere lutenists, Weiss curtails his gift
for melodic riches and slows down the pace for a plainspoken
elegy on the simplest of themes.
As those who have heard the previous volumes in the series will
expect, Robert Barto’s playing is perfect; the Weiss series
has justifiably solidified his reputation as one of the greatest
lutenists alive. As in previous volumes, Barto plays a lute
by Andrew Rutherford, based on the 13-course instrument invented
by Weiss himself. Sound quality, like everything else here,
In other words, this series continues to be an excellent introduction
to the musical world of a great composer, in the hands of a
lutenist with few equals. Collectors will need this album and
anyone with an interest in the baroque era who has missed these
discs so far is left no excuse. Robert Barto’s series of the
Weiss lute sonatas is one of the most important, and most artistically
accomplished, recording projects in baroque music today.
see also review
by Jonathan Woolf