Robert Barto
Charles Weaver

Early Music Vancouver Festival 2013

Vancouver Early Music Festival LuteFest 2: Music for Baroque Guitar & Baroque Lute

Featured Performers
Charles Weaver, baroque guitar, and Robert Barto, baroque lute

Date and Venue 1 August 2013, 8pm | Roy Barnett Hall, UBC

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

The Baroque guitar, golden and delicate, was the most popular household instrument of the 16th century. Versatile, it could be plucked like the lute which it replaced, and strummed to accompany family music making. Ironically, while large quantities of music for professional and amateur alike were published throughout Europe, in its home country of Spain only three guitarists published their music, one of them being tonight's composer Santiago di Murcia. And thank goodness he did.

Tutor to the Queen of Spain, he was in a position to be exposed to music from Spain’s wide dominions and broad economic reach. In his music are French and Italian influences as one might expect, as well as references to Spanish folk music. Fascinatingly there are forms originating in the Spanish Americas and dances, rather racy by contemporary standards, from Africa.

Di Murcia was clearly an outstanding composer as his music is a sophisticated and elegant synthesis. Virtuosic as well, it would seem, though it was difficult to be sure on Thursday evening when Charles Weaver’s playing was so apparently effortless.

In a carefully chosen program he demonstrated the range of di Murcia’s influences with settings of Corelli, dances and passacalles. Included also were the "Cumbees" and the "Zarambeques", both dances from the West African coast.  

The guitar itself was also put through its paces, being slapped like a drum in the "Cumbees", imitating the trumpet in "Ydea nueva de clarines", being loudly strummed or gently ringing like bells or harp in rapid, plucked passage work. In all it was an exploration of the nature of the instrument and its capabilities. Its modest compass of some 2 octaves and maximum volume of perhaps ‘moderately soft’, rather than liabilities were its chief characteristics, used to make complex music that was intensely played and mesmerisingly beautiful.

The second half of the programme moved from Spain to central Europe and presented the lute at its apogee. Robert Barto chose a programme spanning the late 17th to the early 18th centuries represented by three composers, all of them famed in their time as premier lutenists and composers who are now little known but well deserve recent rediscovery. A "Chaconne" by Johann Anton Losy von Losinthal was made an excellent introduction, setting the ear to the sound of the lute. The various voices and the ground were both distinct and part of a tightly woven tapestry of sound.

A Sonata in B flat major by Sylvius Leopold Weiss was the centrepiece, followed later by three movements  from a Sonata in a minor. Barto has spent many years of his life living with Weiss while recording his complete works. He wears his formidable knowledge and technique lightly; his performance was as relaxed and intimate as a conversation with an old friend, now robust and lively, now more introspective and cerebral. Barto’s playing held one in thrall. The final piece by Bernard Joachim Hagen, the 3-movement "Sonata in F major," leaped ahead to the next generation, and showed the lute as capable as any instrument of interpreting the early classical style. Delicate, decorative and graceful, with a particularly happy Allegro, it closed the evening and the era.

Lovely as transcriptions of music by more famous composers are, music written for the lute by lutenists is peculiarly satisfying. When played by such modern masters as Charles Weaver and Robert Barto, this music is a delight.

More details in the program about the lute pieces would help identify the specific works.

© 2013 Elizabeth Paterson