Carmel Bach Festival — Bach and the Lute

Dongsok Shin and Daniel Swenberg

As expected, it was standing room only in the foyer of Sunset Center on Wednesday afternoon for the much anticipated recital by Daniel Swenberg playing lute and Dongsok Shin performing on a lautenwerck. Anyone attending the Carmel Bach Festival in recent years has gotten an earful (and eyeful) of the lute and its cousin the theorbo, but the lautenwerck is a horse of a different color. It is basically a harpsichord, but strung with gut instead of steel strings, and they are rare — I am sure that most of us in the audience had never seen or heard one before.

The beautiful and ornately decorated instrument used in this concert was made in 1997 by Anden Houben in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and was generously loaned to the Festival by Christine & Jerry Baker. The Bakers own two (or 20%) of the ten extant lautenwercks made by Houben. Because of the gut stringing the lautenwerck has a lovely velvety sound that is considerably more mellow than what we are accustomed to hearing from harpsichords.

The concert opened with Swenberg performing three selections for lute: Bach’s Prelude & Vite, BWV 995; Largo from Sonata IV Op. 1 by Adam Falckenhagen; and Bourée from Sonata 30, SC 353 by Sylvius Leopold Weiss. Although I have heard the lute in small ensembles at the Carmel Bach Festival (where they are often more seen than heard), I have to confess that this is the first time I have heard the lute played as a solo instrument. It was a revelation to hear what subtleties of sound and expression a masterful performer like Swenberg can produce. We were impressed by his elegant, refined playing, his exquisite shaping of phrases and his unerring and masterful precision in a variety of ornaments and embellishments.

Shin gave us our first taste of the sound of the Houben lautenwerck with a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, BWV 998. We were immediately charmed by the mellow sound of the instrument and Shin’s use of the two manuals to create opportunities for simulated cantabile and beautifully controlled contrapuntal lines.

The grand finale of the concert, after a five-minute retuning session, was a five-movement duet for lute and lautenwerck by Sylvius Leopold Weiss. This was a lovely performance with impressive imitation back and forth between the instruments, lots of sequences between tonic and dominant, an exquisite Largo movement oozing with gorgeous expression, and winding up with a charming Minuetto.

Shin and Swenberg received a well-deserved standing ovation.

End

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