Bach Played Beautifully on the Baroque Lute, by Preeminent Lutenist Evangelina Mascardi

In the two videos here, see Argen­tine lutenist Evan­geli­na Mas­car­di play pas­sion­ate ren­di­tions of J.S. Bach com­po­si­tions on the rich, res­o­nant Baroque lute. In Bach’s time, lutenists were some of the most wide­ly-admired instru­men­tal play­ers, and it’s easy to see why. The Baroque lute is not an easy instru­ment to play. Much less so were the the­o­r­bo and chi­tar­rone, instru­ments like it but with longer necks for longer bass strings. We see Mas­car­di con­cen­trate with utmost inten­si­ty on every note, a vir­tu­oso on an instru­ment that Bach him­self could not mas­ter.

Indeed, there has been sig­nif­i­cant debate over whether Bach actu­al­ly com­posed his four pieces for solo lute for that instru­ment and not anoth­er. For one thing, he seems to have had a “weak grasp” of the instru­ment, gui­tarist and lutenist Cameron O’Con­nor writes in an exam­i­na­tion of the evi­dence.

“The lute may have been an intim­i­dat­ing sub­ject even for Bach.” There are sev­er­al prob­lems with authen­ti­cat­ing exist­ing copies of the music, and “none of the pieces in staff nota­tion is playable on the stan­dard Baroque lute with­out some trans­po­si­tion of the bass­es and changes in chord posi­tions.”

Clas­si­cal gui­tarist Clive Tit­muss notes, “as stu­dent gui­tarists, we learned that J.S. Bach wrote four suites and a num­ber of mis­cel­la­neous pieces for the lute, now played on the gui­tar.” How­ev­er, recent schol­ar­ship seems to show that Bach, that most revered of Baroque com­posers, “did not write any music specif­i­cal­ly intend­ed for solo lute.” As O’Con­nor spec­u­lates, it was “the Laut­en­wer­ck, or lute harp­si­chord… which Bach most like­ly had in mind while com­pos­ing many of his ‘lute’ works.” You can see it in action here.

What does this debate add to our appre­ci­a­tion of Mas­cardi’s play­ing? Very lit­tle, per­haps. British lutenist and Bach schol­ar Nigel North writes in his Linn Records Bach on the Lute set, “Instead of labour­ing over per­pet­u­at­ing the idea that the so-called lute pieces of Bach are prop­er lute pieces I pre­fer to take the works for unac­com­pa­nied Vio­lin or Cel­lo and make them into new works for lute, keep­ing (as much as pos­si­ble) to the orig­i­nal text, musi­cal inten­tion, phras­ing and artic­u­la­tion, yet trans­form­ing them in a way par­tic­u­lar to the lute so that they are sat­is­fy­ing to play and to hear.”

A lutenist with the skill of North or Mas­car­di can trans­form solo Bach pieces — whether orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten for vio­lin, cel­lo, or laut­en­wer­ck — into the idiom of their cho­sen instru­ment. In Mas­cardi’s trans­for­ma­tions here, these works sound pos­i­tive­ly trans­port­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How a Bach Canon Works. Bril­liant.

Hear Bach’s Bran­den­burg Con­cer­tos Played on Orig­i­nal Baroque Instru­ments

Hear J.S. Bach’s Music Per­formed on the Laut­en­wer­ck, Bach’s Favorite Lost Baroque Instru­ment

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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