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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

An Hour of Elegance

Silvius Leopold WEISS (1687-1750)

Sonata No. 15 in B flat Major [24:45]
Sonata No. 48 in F sharp minor [35:20]

Robert Barto, (baroque lute)

Recorded in the Green Room, Offord Hall, Aurora, Ontario, Canada from 1-4 February 2005.

NAXOS 557806 [60:05]

The German lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss, who was an almost exact contemporary of Sebastian Bach, was regarded as the greatest composer-performer of lute music in Europe during his day. His reputation was equal to that of John Dowland of England who lived more than a century earlier. In 1760, the poet and musician Luise Gottsched wrote that “his compositions stand out above all that are known today. To be sure they are difficult, but only those who are too careless or too old, or otherwise prefer another instrument.” His vast output was difficult to obtain in his own lifetime as he carefully guarded the manuscripts to prevent others from stealing his work, a common practice in an age before universal copyrights.

This fine performance by Robert Barto, the seventh volume in an ongoing series of recordings released by the completist minded Naxos label, presents two sizeable works called sonatas, although they more closely resemble the suites of dances that Bach would call partitas. Opening with a rather melancholy Allemande, the B-flat major sonata effectively moves back and forth from serenity to jaunty frivolity as it runs its course. Barto plays with a warm and generous tone, direct and free of affectation. He has an excellent sense of tempo and it is obvious that he understands that at some basic level, all of this music could be danced to.

The f-sharp minor sonata begins with a gravitas similar to the earlier work. Considerably later in the composer’s output, it seems a bit more reflective and weightier, but still is possessed with a certain joyous spirit that makes the music immediately attractive. Again Mr. Barto is in complete control here, carefully bringing out inner voices and displaying a fine sense of arching line and rhythmic integrity.

In short, this is peaceful and contemplative music, even when it is expressing joy. It is the perfect compliment to an evening by the fireside with a good book and a glass of wine. It will carry you back to a time when refinement and elegance were still valued as a character trait, a time when self-expression through art and music were trademarks of the well educated. Robert Barto’s unhurried virtuosity is just the thing to set a perfect mood. Set aside an hour without interruptions and revel in this bouquet of musical delights.

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