WORKS: Lute works (complete)
PERFORMER: Stephan Schmidt (guitar)
CATALOGUE NO: V 4861
Bach’s ‘works for lute’ do not constitute a coherent set but are rather a ragbag, including transcriptions from the Cello Suites and the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, plus works probably intended for the lute-harpsichord. There’s a puzzle, too, in that Bach wrote these pieces, even his own transcriptions, in keyboard notation rather than the tablature normally used for lute music, thus making them almost impossible to play on either lute or guitar without substantial alteration.
Celebrated guitarists from Segovia to John Williams have recorded these works, yet Stephan Schmidt sets a new benchmark. Disdaining easy options such as changing keys or transposing basses, he’s employed a ten-string guitar that enables him to stick as closely as possible to Bach’s original notation. The results are a revelation. BWV 995, often transposed to A minor, remains in G minor, a key that, as Schmidt notes, gives it its ‘sombre and mysterious character’, enhanced here by his good taste in leaving unembellished the Sarabande’s stark gravity. Schmidt is equally adept with flowing fugal complexities and the sprightly elegance of gigues and minuets. His light touch and supple phrasing are a joy, and the full, gentle tone of his ten-string endows the music with a pellucid beauty.
Julian Bream’s 1990 recital includes three ‘lute’ works plus the famous Chaconne from the violin Partita, BWV 1004. Thoughtful, agile playing is perhaps undermined by a standard guitar tone that next to Schmidt’s lustrous ten-string can sound thin and a little twangy at times.