Only one thing was on everyone’s mind at the Leacock Theatre [at Mount Royal University in Calgary] on 25 January 2014, and that was Paul O’Dette’s programming of a generous helping of Bach’s lute works. Originally written for the lautenwerk, a keyboard instrument (and a curiosity even in its day) made with gut strings instead of metal, it could emulate a lute so exactly when played that it even fooled experts who listened to it in an adjoining room. Bach owned two of the instruments, and even though copies have been built so as to duplicate their sound, the music left behind for the lautenwerk still poses a problem – how do we play these keyboard masterpieces for their authentically-intended sound world, namely, the lute?
Bach’s lute works have historically presented many problems for transcribers and performers, whether for guitar or for baroque thirteen-course lute, but this night, Mr. O’Dette showed that he had no problems at all adapting to the challenges posed by this very difficult repertoire. The greatest living lutenist, arguably, and certainly the most recorded of all time, gave a recital for the ages, and left us all with an incomparable musical experience of such high quality we could never forget.
Restoring these works of Bach to the lute repertoire has been an ongoing process for some time now, and Mr. O’Dette has played an important part in that story. Furthermore, it was never an easy step to take these works to the level of guitar transcription either, and many of the audience members being guitarists at this jointly-hosted concert by the Calgary Bach Society and the Classical Guitar Society of Calgary showed tremendous interest in Mr. O’Dette’s polished transcriptional abilities and scintillating fingerwork skill.
Besides, the chance to hear Mr. O’Dette perform most anything at all, and to watch him as he artistically elicits a broad range of timbral tonal colors from his lute with unsurpassed musicality and transcendent technique was not to be missed.
The concert opened with the Suite in G minor (BWV 995), a transcription of the violoncello Suite in D minor (BWV 1008), but re-titled “Pieces pour la luth à Monsieur Schouster.” From the first few notes one is struck by the meticulousness of phrasing, particularly in the breathtaking fugue which was executed with uncommon and unstinting mastery over such difficult-to-play counterpoint. His Allemande was sensitively played – stately, slow, every small phrase accounted for, and every ornament and turn clean.
Mr. O’Dette’s sense of the dance is never lost, the rhythms played with an explorative ease, and gratifyingly, he let some of Bach’s more adventurous harmonies resonate a little longer for our enjoyment. In the Courante, Mr. O’Dette explored the broader range of rhetoric underlying the piece both rhythmically and in each phrase shape. He takes advantage of the intellectual abstractions offered by these highly stylized dance pieces at every point, particularly in the Sarabande, a movement now famous to us today for its somewhat existential qualities. Like so many movements of the Baroque dance suite which became stylized to such a point that they grew to become their own unique, artistically complex, musical identities, the works on this night’s program demonstrated how such works came to transcend the very rhythms and gestures for which these movements were originally written. It was entirely appropriate that Mr. O’Dette could convey a rich appreciation for the history and interpretation of these works and their intrinsic sophistication evinced through his manifestly astute playing of every note, every phrase and each color.
Next came the Partita in E Major (BWV 1006a), transcribed up a semi-tone and played in F, to accommodate the bassline. Absolutely hypnotic, lustrous, colored in ways I had never before heard, with fretwork skill that was truly outstanding, this is one of the toughest pieces to play on lute, from the point of view of virtuosity and skill alone. Yet the work is balanced throughout with quieter, genteel and often haunting moments of exquisite beauty, such as the Loure, a dance of subtler lilting demeanor, beautifully played by Mr. O’Dette. Always taking repeats, Mr. O’Dette adeptly showed a different timbral and Baroque character in every dance he played in this suite. The minuets have been taken slower on many recordings, but here, Mr. O’Dette is dedicated to a more authentic tempo in accordance with the speed at which these works would have been danced. The result was a nice narrative flow-through from Minuett I to II, with his handling of the Minuett II so moving, yet a little slower, never dragging, and with a premium paid entirely to the idiosyncratic beauty of Bach’s beautiful close harmonies. Mr. O’Dette’s interpretations of these dances underscores how these gallantries ought to be played – with intimacy, meditatively, even for private enjoyment. With these small pearls, Mr. O’Dette seemed to achieve the rarest of feats in concert performance, and that was to transcend the spacious hall of the Leacock Theatre and speak to us one by one as though playing to us in a private salon, respecting the original performing intent of these finely-crafted works.
The night only got better. Programmed in the second half was the evening’s only work authentically written for the lute, namely Silvius Leopold Weiss’s Suite in C minor, the composer’s first work in the genre. Weiss, a close friend of Bach’s, was as noted an improviser in his day as the great organist, and there is every sense that the suites we heard in the first half of the concert were written in Weiss’s honor. Mr. O’Dette, who spoke familiarly and charmingly to his audience between every suite, extolled the work as a mature and idiomatically authentic example of a young composer who had truly found his creative voice with his instrument. And certainly the work was played that way, with contrasts of strong accents measured with tender beauty. This has long been a favorite lute work of mine, and to hear it played live for the first time, and so well, was a real treat.
To conclude, Mr. O’Dette turned to another difficult work by Bach, the Italian-styled Sonata in G minor (BWV 1001), originally written for violin.
By leaving the G minor sonata for the end with its famous, monstrous fugue that is so difficult to execute, Mr. O’Dette saved the best for last. Navigated with true facility and always contrapuntally clear, this work was played with outstandingly uncommon expression. Usually lutenists and guitarists merely try to survive this work and get to the end intact, but for Mr. O’Dette, expression counted for everything, and this was by far the most impressive work that he played all evening. The final Gigue was spun forth from his lute with such considerable alacrity that its performance was impossible to rival on any artistic level.
For his encore, to send us into the night, Mr. O’Dette chose the Largo from the violin Sonata in C Major (BWV 1005), which he played with such sincerity and beauty, none of us likely would have left had he elected to play all night. He continued his entrancing hold over us, never missing any of Bach’s harmonic twists and turns along the way, giving each its due, and then more. It was worth every moment to hear Mr. O’Dette light up the room with one more resonant chord held for all its worth, one more graceful gesture, one more moment of refined beauty, the like of which in the hands of such a master, we are unlikely to ever hear again.
Stephan Bonfield – The Calgary Herald