The lute is not an instrument meant to be played in major concert halls: unwrapping a cough drop while a lutenist performs could drown out an entire fantasia. In general, live performances are superior to recorded versions, but--unless you're privy to a recital in some royal chamber--recordings of lute music may be the best way to appreciate it fully. Certainly, the two discs most recently released by Hopkinson Smith '70 reward close, repeated listenings.
I'll confess right off that I think Smith is a marvel to hear. But these discs don't just offer extremely refined playing, they also provide a historical survey of composition for the lute and its family. The first, Hopkinson Smith Portrait, is a low-priced sampler comprising selections from his 20 solo recordings. From the Renaissance in Spain and music for the viheula da mano,to the high German Baroque and the 13-course lute, Smith appears to have played, and mastered, works by all major composers for early plucked-string instruments. The second recording shows off the music of Sylvius Leopold Weiss, Bach's contemporary and arguably the greatest of all composers for the lute. It's poignant that the lute fell out of favor soon after Weiss died. It's as if he exploited so many of the instrument's capabilities that it perished, exhausted.
All the selections on the first recording are interesting, but highlights include a fantasia by Alonso De Mudarra, the Tombeau de Gogo by Charles Mouton, and the Toccata Arpeggiata by Giovanni Kapsperger. This exquisite piece, in its constant soft plucking and shifting arpeggiated harmonies, put me in mind of watching soft rain on a still pond. Rounding out the disc, two examples of Smith's acclaimed transcriptions of Bach's work alternate with a handful of very pleasing selections by Weiss.
Listeners who prefer extended interpretations to compilation discs can't go wrong with the second recording. Weiss's music has all of the spaciousness and grandeur of Baroque music but sounds less pedagogical than Bach's. He wears his heart on his sleeve more and wrings a lonely melancholy out of the instrument in the D minor partita. The Partita in G major is sunnier and more dance-like.
Smith's style is expressive but not sentimental. His ornaments and tone always remain tasteful, subtle. His phrasing is highly articulated, yet rounded and unforced, creating the impression that much of this music must have accompanying lyrics to be rediscovered. He favors the emotional content of the music, and his melody, over strict regulation of time, but is mysteriously able to communicate a driving, elastic rhythm, surprising at every hearing. Ultimately though, it's not possible to explain how an artist as capable as this creates his effects. As was once said of the poet Philip Larkin, Smith is so good, he is useless as a model.
I'm sure he would disagree. Smith appears to be as dedicated a teacher and scholar as he is a musician. Now an instructor at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, he left Cambridge in 1973 for what he thought would be only a year of study at that school. Instead, he remained in Basel and now gives master classes and concerts throughout Europe and North and South America. Like other lutenists, notably Paul O'Dette, Smith has been instrumental in rediscovering much of the lute's repertoire. He is, according to a former student, an exacting master who emphasizes tone quality and the intelligibility of musical lines above all.
Smith has said that "[b]ehind any guitar music is real silence. Once you have that, you can start to make something from the sound." And it's true that in the delicate nuances of the lute's tone, the choral hum of its strings fading so quickly, silence feels much closer and richer than one would expect. In these discs, Smith shapes that silence into something rare and beautiful.
by Daniel Delgado (Harvard Magazine)