This is not a recording 'playing' with Bach, or otherwise experimenting
with novel instrumentation. Rather, it's a recreation of a sound
that Bach and his contemporaries certainly loved. The Lautenwerck
(also spelled Lautenwerk) is also known as the lute-harpsichord
(or lute-clavier). It's peculiar to the Baroque. Similar to
the harpsichord, it uses gut, rather than metal, strings and
produces a soft, mellow tone - somewhat like the reticent presence
of a lute.
Reticent about being somehow wise, self-confident; not at all
for conjuring up a self-effacing sound. And the Lautenwerck's
is a sound that's as rich, deep and resonant as it's gentle.
We know Bach favoured the Lautenwerck … he owned two at the
time of his death. Sadly, not a single example of this beautiful-sounding
instrument has survived from the eighteenth century. The Lautenwerck
now exists entirely in reconstruction. The one on this delightful
CD is a double by Anden Houben - one of the leading modern American
Specialist John Paul has recorded this CD, the fourth volume
in a series from Lyrichord which will eventually extend to many
of Bach's keyboard works, using a single peau de buffe
stop … one quilled in soft leather which brushes the string.
This facilitates subtle, but completely audible, differences
of dynamic according to the speed of touch. The quiet nature
of the sound which the Lautenwerck makes should not be overstated.
This recording was closely miked and is designed to be heard
at low volume, as is the case with clavichord recitals. But
there's nothing effete, underwhelming or even particularly delicate
about the sound. In fact, it simply resembles a lute … listen
to the Sarabande of BWV 811 [tr.4]: it's measured, intimate,
careful but neither shy, nor apologetic.
This must be borne in mind when listening to this excellent
set of interpretations of Bach's Clavier Suites as must the
fact that the mechanics of the instrument - its attack, release,
levers and so on - all contribute positively to our appreciation
of the act of performance by Paul. His phrasing, tempi, expression
and understanding of the relative speeds, lingerings, accelerandi
and 'local' intricacies - the way in which the smaller musical
motifs are developed - are all ideal.
It's true that Paul is in no rush. He plays in the spirit of
the influence exerted by French and Italian traditions during
Bach's lifetime. Although these works do not exhibit the jauntiness
and sprung elegance of the pure French or galant styles,
there is a sensitivity about Paul's playing which has enough
robustness to temper any threat of spurious gentility. The result
is a series of very human Bach movements. Such an approach is
particularly appropriate since it reinforces the sense of Bach
first being curious about the music that influenced him, then
absorbing its idiom, and finally making it his own. The intimacy
and restraint of the Lautenwerck support such an approach well.
We know that Bach expected - probably even intended - such works
to be played on various plucked instruments … the autograph
of BWV 998 has 'pour le luth o cembal'. This recording makes
an excellent contribution to our experience of what is - in
effect - the best of both worlds. We also know - as the short
but informative liner-note says - that Bach thought particularly
highly of his Clavier works. Among the few of his works which
he had printed, these take up the most room.
Since many good recordings of these keyboard works exist, it
is the extra dimension of hearing them on this instrument that
recommends this CD - and the others in the series. Were the
performances to be less accomplished, their curiosity value
would overtake the deeply satisfying experience of immersing
yourself in the lines, textures, dynamics and almost primal
world of the music's counterpoint and harmonic invention. As
it is, these are accounts to return to and appreciate as fully
representative of Bach's infinite creativity. For more on the
Lautenwerck itself this
page is useful.