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.