Liuto con forza
Bengt HAMBRÆUS (1928-2000)
Varianti per liuto solo (2000) [13:49]
Ivo NILSSON (b.1966)
Luta for theorbo (1999-2000) [9:25]
Erik PETERS (b.1970)
Pice for lute and live electronics (2010) [8:02]
Lars EKSTRÖM (b.1956)
Vision and Ashes for theorbo (1996) [12:18]
Ingvar KARKOFF (b.1958)
Four Pieces for lute (1985) [9:19]
Kent OLOFSSON (b.1962)
Chemin de Silence I-III for theorbo (2010) [9:58]
Peter Söderberg (6-course Renaissance lute, 8-course Renaissance lute, 11-course baroque lute, Theorbo)
rec. 21-23 October 2009 and 17-18 March 2010, Studio 12, Radiohuset, Gothenburg. DDD

Has anyone written a book on the fascinating phenomenon of twentieth century (and later) music written for ‘ancient’ instruments? If so, it has escaped me so far, but the field is certainly a very interesting one. The lute has had rather less ‘modern’ music written for it than the harpsichord has. There are relatively few significant modern works for the lute family; such examples as there are might include compositions by Mauricio Kagel, Howard Skempton, Stephen Dodgson, Sandor Kallos and a few others. Now here is an entire CD of newish works for the lute, all written between 1985 and 2010. Peter Söderberg was joined by Sven Åborg on an earlier CD, The Contemporary Lute – which contained music by Cage, Stockhausen, Reich and Ingvar Karkoff, not all of it written specifically for the instrument.

In the days of its greatest glory, the lute was an instrument endlessly praised by poets, almost exclusively in terms of its gentleness and sweetness of sound. For Richard Barnfield (1584) it produced a “sweet melodious sound”; for John Ashmore (1621) it had a “sweet warbling sound”. In a poem by Robert Lovelace, ‘Lute and Voice: A Dialogue’ (1659), the Voice implores the instrumentalist to

Touch [his] soft Lute, and in each gentle thread,
The Lyon and the Panther Captive lead”.

The lute’s power was a matter of magic and harmony, not ‘force’. To admirers and instrumentalists alike the notion of the lute being played “con forza” would have seemed a kind of paradox. Some of these pieces do require the player to push the instrument to the extreme of its dynamic range but there is a subtler sense in which this music involves liuto con forza – it is a matter of assertiveness, of a consciousness of holding the centre of the musical stage, of reclaiming a musical authority it hasn’t held for composers since the middle of the eighteenth century.

Peter Söderberg has always been an adventurous musician. He has appeared in more than a few jazz ensembles and as a guitarist (though his main attention has been given to the lute in recent years) he played plenty of contemporary repertoire. As a lutenist he has recorded the music of the renaissance and baroque but has also appeared on such genre-transcending albums as Trioloz by the Christer Bothen Trio. He is the ideal performer for the works on this present disc.

Varianti per Liuto solo was the very last piece written by that interesting figure Bengt Hambræus during his final illness. Using unorthodox (scordatura) tuning, Hambræus’ music includes some fierce climaxes which would have startled any Renaissance lutenist and would doubtless have been met with disapproval. But there are also some runs and phrases which might have elicited the admiration of a Dowland or a Francesco da Milano. The opening of Ivo Nilsson’s Luta for Theorbo takes us further back still, in that it echoes the sound of the oud, the lute’s ancestor, hinting at its middle-eastern origins. Nilsson’s use of microtonality creates a kind of bridge between those origins (at times one seems to hear the sound of the sitar) and some thoroughly contemporary idioms. Here the explorations of the instrument’s dynamic range – loud and soft – produce some particularly intriguing results. The Piece for Lute and Live Electronics by Erik Peters contains some moments of ethereal beauty, the electronics sometimes supporting and extending the notes of the lute, sometimes surrounding it with a halo of barely heard sound; at times the electronics become an almost equal partner in a musical dialogue. This is a piece that reveals new textures and relationships with repeated hearings.

Lars Ekström, in his Visions and Ashes for Theorbo quotes from Dowland (The Frog Galliard), but only as the starting point for some distinctively modern writing. The work is in three short movements, the last of them prompting thoughts of the baroque fantasia, more by its fluidity of mood and line than because it ever settles for mere pastiche. Apparently Ekström, Professor of Composition and Instrumentation at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, has played the lute since his schooldays and the subtlety of his writing for the instrument evidences his longstanding familiarity with it. The Four Pieces for Lute by Ingvar Karkoff is for the baroque lute, rather than the renaissance instrument, doesn’t strike one as being so peculiarly well-fitted to the lute, and one misses Ekström’s intimate knowledge of the instrument’s possibilities. The programme closes with another work for theorbo – Kent Olofsson’s Chemin de Silence I-III. Here too there are echoes of the baroque – as Erik Wallrup points out in his booklet notes, “the first and last section have chord sequences than can be likened to passacaglia, while the second is more like a free toccata”. The music requires an instrument retuned in quarter-tones and with additional frets. Back in the late 1970s Olofsson played guitar with the progressive rock band Opus Est, for which he also wrote much of the music (two albums by the band can be heard on Spotify). He went on to study at the Malmö Academy of Music – where Olofsson himself now teaches. The adapted theorbo used in Chemin de Silence produces some deep, tick textures and some effects suggestive of a kind of poetic mystery and even of religious expectation. It is very striking music; like so much else on this disc it effects a remarkable extension of the tradition of the lute.

Glyn Pursglove

Fascinating extensions of the lute and its music.