Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Complete Clavier Suites Volume 4
English Suite 6 - BWV 811: Prelude [9:34]
English Suite 6 - BWV 811: Allemande [4:32]
English Suite 6 - BWV 811: Courante [2:44]
English Suite 6 - BWV 811: Sarabande et Double [6:20]
English Suite 6 - BWV 811: Gavottes 1 and 2 [6:26]
English Suite 6 - BWV 811: Gigue [4:02]
French Overture - BWV 831: Overture [13:45]
French Overture - BWV 831: Courante [2:34]
French Overture - BWV 831: Gavottes [3:56]
French Overture - BWV 831: Passepieds [3:40]
French Overture - BWV 831: Sarabande [3:36]
French Overture - BWV 831: Bourrees [3:16]
French Overture - BWV 831: Gigue [2:32]
French Overture - BWV 831: Echo [3:53]
John Paul (Lautenwerck)
rec. 2010 St Andrew's Cathedral, Jackson, Mississippi. DDD
LYRICHORD LEMS 8077 [71:00]

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 builders.

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.

Mark Sealey

Great finesse and insight on the Lautenwerck, which combines the sounds of lute and harpsichord.