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REVIEW: Lutenist Hopkinson Smith Plays Bach Cello Suites on German Theorbo at Salon Sanctuary Concert in NYC

By Jon Sobel j.sobel@classicalite.com on Nov 12, 2014 10:14 AM EST

Salon Sanctuary Concerts presented renowned lutenist Hopkinson Smith performing Johann Sebastian Bach's first three cello suites on the German theorbo last night.

Seeking his best option for the tricky task of effectively putting across these richly emotional works on a plucked instrument, Smith has chosen to transcribe them for the German theorbo, a type of bass lute with a compatible-enough tuning and a deep enough range for these works, BWV 1007-1009, which are among the best-known cello music in the baroque/classical repertoire.

With sensitive readings and impeccable technique, Smith proved, as if it needed proving, that Bach's works can sing out in all their awesome complexity and deep humanity even when transcribed for an instrument with a different, even in some ways almost opposite, character from that on which they're usually performed.

The theorbo is almost always used to accompany voices or other instruments. Smith told us he was not aware of any solo repertoire for the German theorbo. Nonetheless there were many moments during his concert when one could just close one's eyes and let the music sweep one away.

While I had imagined that the slower movements (e.g. the Sarabandes) would be the hardest to put forward convincingly in the thin sounds of the lute, they turned out to be among the most rewarding. Spacious passages and gentle rhythms allowed Smith to release the full flavor of his instrument. The richest, clearest sound came during movements like the F Major Suite's Sarabande, the G Minor's lush, flowing Prelude and the C Major's dark Sarabande.

More lively movements were often impressive too, like the serenely expressive Allemande of the C Major and the flashy Gigue that closes the F Major. But the limitations of the instrument added some frustrating elements to Smith's brave new venture. Low notes didn't always ring clearly. Anxious, almost buzzing tones escaped during a few passages, as in the controlled frenzy of Menuet I of the G Minor. At times, quickly moving passages of counterpoint didn't always permit a distinct attack on every note.

Nonetheless, as so often with the great composers, and especially the infinitely transcribable J.S. Bach, a new interpretation and a world-class performance made it easy to come away with a renewed appreciation for great works.

Hopkinson Smith performs in Dallas, TX tomorrow and Friday (November 13 and 14) and in Paris on November 22. Visit his website for updates.

The next Salon Sanctuary concert is the music-theater piece Denis Diderot, Rameau's Nephew on December 13. See the Salon Sanctuary website for the full 2014-2015 season.

(Note: The video below captures Smith playing the baroque lute, not the German theorbo.)

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TagsHopkinson Smith, Bach, J.S. Bach, cello, Cello Suite, theorbo, German theorbo, lute, Salon/Sanctuary