Weimann, Harris, Weiss, Bach, A Ghost & Forty Deuce StreetWednesday, July 30, 2014
|Wendelin Tieffenbrucker theorbo rose 16th cent. & Rosa 'Charles de Mills'|
Last night’s concert at UBC School of Music’s Roy Barnett Recital Hall with performers Alexander Weimann on the harpsichord and Lucas Harris on the lute was beautifully spooky for several reasons. The concert was the third in the series of the 2014 Vancouver Early Music Festival produced by Early Music Vancouver.
Around 1968 I purchased a Nonesuch Recording of Walter Gerwig playing some of J.S. Bach’s lute music. Immediately it became obvious to me that the lute had a sound that a guitar lacked. It was a sound that made my spine tingle. I have never known (at least until last night) why it is that the bass notes of any lute somehow are unique to the point that my only basis for comparison were some bass notes that jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson played on his instrument at the Vancouver Playhouse many years ago. For me the individual notes of a violin, a flute, the oboe (and until last night) of a harpsichord have no emotional penetration except when combined in a chord. Only that individual sound of one (or perhaps two as lutes have double strings called courses) affects me emotionally. I did not know why but then I asked lutenist, lute maker, baritone, etc Ray Nurse at the concert last night. This is his explanation:
The lowest notes on the theorbo or archlute have a remarkably profound and projecting sound. This is partly due to the lowness of the notes (below the low C of the cello), but especially because the colour of these notes is very rich in overtones and high partials; the length of the bass string (often over 5 feet) means the strings can be relatively thin, making them bright and penetrating, despite the low pitch. A short, thick string, by comparison, would sound dark, dull and lacking in overtones.
If you are as confused as I am as to the differences among lutes, theorbos and archlutes look here and you will still be as confused as I still am!
|Stephen Stubbs - chitarrone - copy mid 17th century Italian model by the English Luthier Stephen Barber in 1995.|
Suffice to know that this instrument has a sound that is rarely heard in an ensemble. I cannot compete with string instruments. It shares some ignominy with its continuo partner the harpsichord. In many baroque performances I have attended in the past I can see it but rarely hear it. And until I went to performances by Richard Eggar and of Alexander Weimann (who has just moved to Vancouver) I did not appreciate the pleasant capabilities of the instrument. In fact my memories of the instrument have been haunted by having seen Vincent Price in Roger Corman's House of Usher (based on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher) playing a harpsichord while Technicolor blood oozed from surrounding walls with the sounds of a woman (not quite dead?) moaning.
It was Weimann who once told me that a lot of the music that he plays on the harpsichord as continuo accompaniment (sometimes the instruments can also be, the viola da gamba, the cello, the bass, the organ and, yes, the lute) was not written so he had to improvise. Since I love jazz, that opened my eyes to the instrument. Some of have been lucky enough to listen to Weimann play jazz on the harpsichord.
In the pre-concert talk with EMV Artistic Director Matthew White and the two performers I found out that as the quantity of courses went up as the lute players attempted to compete with the harpsichord, the complexity of playing the instrument finally set it on a decline. Interesting to me is that Vancouver keyboardist extraordinaire Michael Jarvis once played for me his antique pre US Civil War square Chickering piano that had a lever that could give the instrument a waterfall sound. And that waterfall sound mimicked the sound of a harpsichord! It would seem that the lute tried to imitate the harpsichord and when the harpsichord went in decline the interloper, the piano could in some instances mimic it.
|Alexander Weimann, Matthew White & Lucas Harris|
Last night’s concert featured these composers. Since little music seems to have been composed for the lute and the harpsichord as solo instruments in tandem the performance began with only one of two where Weimann and Harris played together. This was Gregorio Strozzi’s (1615-1687) Sonata a basso solo. Weimann played it on José Verstappen’s (former EMV Artistic Director) harpsichord which he made in the Italian style. Weimann gave us the opportunity to listen to it and Craig Tomlinson’s ( West Vancouver) French style instrument. The former was precise, sharp with a short decay of sound. The French-style instrument’s sound lingered and seemed to me more subtle.
The other piece played by both was Sylvius Leopold Weiss’ Adagio & Allegro in which the second instrument part ( a lute) was reconstructed by Karl –Ernst Schröder and adapted by Weimann.
|Lucas Harris playing Ray Nurse's 10-course lute & Weimann at Verstappen's Italian harpsichord|
The other pieces were all played with great virtuosity including Bach’s Fantasia cromatica & Fuga in d minor BWV 903 which was so taxing for Weimann’s fingers that after a wonderful long flourish of notes and when Harris began that other virtuoso piece for lute, Bach’s Prélude & Fugue in E flat major BWV 998 I could see Weimann frantically extending and contracting his fingers.
Since the harpsichord has no pedals like a piano, Weimann who is the Artistic Director of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra or has been leader for many EMV concerts, sometimes has the task of having to direct while playing the harpsichord or organ. He likes to do this standing up. It was interesting to see how Weimann when playing the Bach fugue, and in some places only used his right hand, he would close his left hand in a point and direct himself! I found this charming.
As for Harris’s Bach fugue performance, a most complex and difficult piece that had stumped him for years, a tragic event made it possible for him to play it. The death of his mentor and teacher, American lutenist Patrick O’Brien two weeks ago saddened him but as Harris explained, O’Brien was somehow a third man on stage last night. So we had two men, very close, playing with a degree of intimacy that was frightening and that may have been haunted by a ghost.
I should end here and against the advice of my wife Rosemary who was shocked when I told her of the plan I shall soldier one with my conclusion.
In 1985 I went to New York City with a male writer friend. One evening, I was comfortably reading in bed he told me, “I am going to 42nd Street (William Gibson called it Forty Deuce Street) want to come along?” I declined as I was not interested in watching a live sex show which was what the street was notorious for.
Somehow last night there was a level of mutual communication between two men who have known each other for 15 years that approached an instance that for me almost uncomfortable. I felt that I, and the people around me were superfluous to the performance. At the same time I knew we were lucky to be there even if we didn’t belong. It wasn’t sex, but close enough.
Next this Friday
Next this Friday
Addendum: Re lutenist Walter Gerwig. Gerwig taught Eugen Müller-Dombois who in turn taught Ray Nurse.
|Harris playingStephen Stubbs' 13-course lute by Michael Lowe, Oxford|
Almost as close as the sound of that bass note of the lute or the final note of Weimann’s harpsichord in that Weiss Allegro. The bass note sounded suspiciously like (but not quite) that of the lute!
|From David Macaulay - Cathedral -The Story of its Construction|