CD Classical Review
March 10, 1999
Hopkinson Smith plays the lute like it never went out of style. His virtuosity goes beyond physical facility to realize a rare metaphysical poetry, and in the process he brings these age-old inventions to life. Anyone thinking the preceding claim verges on the hyperbolic should audition Smith's latest issue, an Astrée album of Partitas by the great Baroque lutenist/composer Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1686-1750).
This is sublime music, coursed through with a melancholy cantabile that defies the lute's notoriously quick decay. Smith's performace of the Weiss is magical and shows him carrying the torch of his teacher, the pioneering lutenist/performer Eugen Dombois. While an ace with the Baroque lute, Smith is adept with all manner of archaic plucked instruments - the vihuela, the Renaissance lute, Renaissance and Baroque guitars, and the theorbo.
The 52-year-old Smith - a native New Englander now living in Switzerland where he teaches at Basel's Schola Cantorum - has built up a substantial discography over the past two decades on Astrée.
Astrée has recently reissued a a new slipcase 3 CD edition of Smith playing the vihuela music of Milan, Narvaez and Mudarra commemorating last year's 500th anniversary of the death of Spanish King Philip II . The set is a treasure trove, from the elegant pavanes of Milan and the more piquant fantasies of Mudarra to the rich ruminations of Narvaez - such as his take on Josquin's profound chanson Mille Regretz. A weight sonority, flawless articulation, and a vibrant sense of drama are the hallmarks of Smith's vihuela.
Of all the music offered, though, it is the beautifully recorded Weiss that is perhaps the most addictive, particularly the grave beauty of the D minor Partita. Weiss wrote over 600 pieces for the lute - more than any other composer for the instrument - so perhaps we will get lucky and Smith will regale us with more.