BACH: Sonatas & Partitas
Hopkinson Smith makes such a good case for Bach's Sonatas and Partitas on the lute that his recording is arguably the best you can buy of these works - on any instrument
Bach's student Johann Friedrich Reichardt wrote that Bach often played the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin on the clavichord, fleshing out their essentially skeletal textures, though if he ever wrote any of this down it has not survived. He did, of course, perform the same service for the Praeludium of BWVlOO6, though for what instrument BWVlOO6a was intended, we cannot be sure. Nigel North has already made similar adaptations of the six Cello Suites (Linn, 9/96 and 4/97) for the lute, and here Hopkinson Smith does the same for the solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas.
The lute - like the guitar, frequently a chosen vessel for these works - is able to sustain notes that die rapidly when the violinist's bow leaves them to move into another register, relieving the listener of the task of keeping them in the inner ear in order to complete two-voice textures; it is also able to provide supporting basses where the violin cannot. All chords of three or four notes must perforce be spread (arpeggiated) on the violin, which does not always best serve the music, but the lutenist can choose whether or not to spread them. The original chords are, of course, distributed in 'violin-friendly' ways that are not necessarily optimal for the lute, so they need to be suitably adjusted and even increased in weight where appropriate. All this calls for a high degree of taste and scholarship, areas in which Smith lacks nothing, not least in the aptness of his economically applied embellishments.
The centrepiece of the set, the Chaconne of the D minor Partita, is taken at an unusually quick pace (12'15"), though you would know this only if you read the insert-booklet beforehand. The flexibility we know as rubato cannot be measured, only felt, and the naturalness with which Smith applies it transforms the music into eloquent and, in each slow movement, noble speech. The dance movements are light of step and the Fugues in the three Partitas unfold with perfect logic and clarity -but without losing their 'human' quality. Hopkinson Smith is the supreme 'poet' of the lute, and it is without hesitation that I count this recording as, for me, the finest I have heard of these works, on any instrument. The natural resonances of the lute assist the continuity of the lines and the recording itself preserves them without turning them into 'sonic soup'. If you fail to share my experience the loss will be yours!
by by John Duarte (Gramophone)