Bach: Suites Nos. 1, 2 & 3 (CD review)

Hopkinson Smith, theorbo. Naive E 8937.

Like many other composers of his time, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) reused and rewrote much of his earlier material, often transcribing entire works for new instruments. So it probably would not have surprised him that musicians today are doing the same things with his music. Theorobist Hopkinson Smith follows up his successful album of Bach's Cello Suites 4, 5 & 6 transcribed for lute with the present disc of Nos. 1, 2 & 3, saying he transcribed the latter for theorbo because he finds the instrument more ideally suited in sound and aesthetic to the first three suites.

Fair enough, especially since Bach himself transcribed at least one of the suites for lute. Indeed, as Smith points out, “more than half of the continental lute music of the Renaissance is made up of adaptations of vocal works.” Whatever, the approach works and provides exquisite entertainment.

The theorbo, if you’re not sure, is a now-obsolete bass lute with two sets of strings attached to separate peg boxes, one above the other, on the neck. The biggest difference between the theorbo and the cello, of course, is that as one would do with any lute, one plucks the theorbo rather than using a bow. Think, then, of the cello suites on guitar, if it helps.

Smith performs the suites gently, with conviction and ease, creating from them easy-flowing renditions. He adds sweetness and refinement throughout the interpretations, making them rich and well thought out, as friendly to the ear as they are to the mind.

The theorbo imparts a kind of Spanish or Mediterranean spirit to the music, helped no doubt by Smith’s ardent, sunny, bighearted playing. There is nothing rushed here, only soothing, relaxed music making.

For these performances Smith tells us he uses a type of theorbo “invented and developed by Sylvius Weiss in the 1720s,” which has “greater body size and longer string length to produce a fuller sound.” Smith simply calls it the “German theorbo,” and there is no question it works well with the music.

The suites, as you know, contain a little something for everyone, filled as they are with beautiful melodies, harmonies, and inventions of all sorts, but in Smith’s hands they are mostly lyrical. As he explains it, the “tempos may occasionally be somewhat of a surprise to listeners used to the solo cello version. With the resonance and fuller harmonies of the German theorbo, one tends to roll more with some of the more robust dance rhythms of these suites, with no need to rush through. The silence beyond the music is the constant friend and companion of any player of early plucked instruments.”

In other words, don’t expect the usual lickety-split of a period-instruments performance. Smith takes his time with the music, producing uniquely serene, lovely, contemplative renderings of the suites that reveal endless new pleasures.

The Naive engineers recorded the music in 2012 at the MC2: Grenoble, France. They miked the theorbo moderately close, providing a clean, warm sound that complements the rich tone of the instrument well. One could hardly ask for a more-precise, more-natural sonic presentation, very sharp, very clear, yet very resonant and natural.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa