The American lutenist Hopkinson Smith was born in 1946. This beautiful album of lute works melancholy and spry was recorded in 2015 but released only now. A 70th-birthday present to himself, perhaps? Certainly the continued presence on this earth of an artist such as Smith, whose recordings over the years of the rich German, French, Italian, English and Spanish repertoire for guitar, vihuela and lute are surely one of the greatest musical ornaments of our own age, is worth celebrating.
In his somewhat philosophical booklet note, Smith claims that his ‘naming of unnamed pieces … can be seen as a natural extension’ of the ‘many types of extemporisation’ that results from the fluency which develops when one grows ‘into a repertoire and ingests its language and freedoms’. In compiling such a collection of these and other pieces, he says he is also following the Elizabethan example of assembling in a single manuscript ‘works by various composers … sometimes from different periods and styles copied by various scribes’.
The programme comprises works by John Dowland and his contemporaries, as well as music by a preceding generation of lute composers who counted among their number the great John Johnson and Anthony Holborne. But whether in a pavan like Ward’s Repose(Smith’s title, a tribute to a former teacher), one of the many galliards whose triple time belies their profundity or a grave, imitative fantasy like Dowland’s after Gregorio Huwet, Smith’s approach is the same: locate the soul of each piece through the most sophisticated and subtle use of extemporised embellishment you’ll ever hear. Yes, it’s that good.