Solo Lute Music by JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH - Performed by Nigel North
The MHS Review 377 VOL. 10, NO. 17 • 1986
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"Bach's lute music has a magnificence and magic not found elsewhere, but alas, is so awkwardly written for the instrument! It is like a high mountain which, from the summit, commands a view of the whole of creation --and, in order to reach there, we have to negotiate many seemingly impossible routes:"
Today there are some exceptional players of the lute who can invoke the past like sorcerers of old. Nigel North is on of them.
Using a huge baroque lute nearly as long as he is tall, this English gentleman offers us about half of J.S. Bach's remarkable output for his demanding instrument. Noting that Bach has to be set apart from the many other lute composers, North says, "His lute music has a magnificence and magic not found elsewhere, but alas, is so awkwardly written for the instrument! It is like a high mountain which, from the summit, commands a view of the whole of creation --and, in order to reach there, we have to negotiate many seemingly impossible routes:"
The journey is its own reward--a great one--for North and for us. Awkwardness disappears, difficulties vanish. Pure music remains: the perky Suite in E major, which Bach himself derived from the unaccompanied Violin Partita of the same key (you will recognize its stirring Prelude ); the Prelude in C minor and Fugue in G minor (the first comes from a harpsichord piece, the second from an unaccompanied violin sonata, and both are well-known staples in the repertoires of classical guitarists); and the magnificent Suite in G minor (from a suite for unaccompanied cello).
Transcriptions belong as much to the baroque as to the romantic era, so do not think for a moment that North (or Bach) is short-changing us! These skillfully wrought settings seem made for the lute. And what a lute this one is: a replica by the famed Dutch maker Nico van der Waals of an antique original by J.C. Hoffman (a German who worked in Leipzig in the 1730s, the very time when Bach was composing this music).
The American lutenist Paul O'Dette has one of these, and I have held it. Its weight, big as it is, is a matter not of pounds, but ounces. Speak in a conversational tone and you can feel its pear-shaped belly vibrating against your fingertips. It quivers with the potential for music and has a splendid tone. North's instrument has the same sort of gloriously plangent sonority. Hear it in the Suite in G minor and you will know how perfectly matter and music can be mated.
A note of warning, however: Do resist the temptation to enlarge the effect beyond the natural. Keep the volume control low. Lutes do not submerge their listeners in unruly torrents of sound. They coax and cajole our ears and hearts with gentlemanly persuasion.