J.S. Bach: Aufs Lautenwerk

cover image

Works by J.S. Bach on Well Tempered guitar

BWV996, 997, 998

co-release between MicroFest Records and New Focus Recordings

co-produced with John Schneider

"This album works so very well on many levels. It is a great example of the state of art in tuning scholarship, a lovely recording of a fine instrument, and a deeply engaging example of authentic and thoughtful performance practice. From the moment I first heard this CD I was entranced by the very musical experience. There is as much to appreciate in the depth and accuracy of the scholarship involved as there is in the deeply committed and learned performance. This is recording is “definitive” in that it represents state of the art tuning theory, instrument making, and baroque performance practice.

Readers of this blog know that I rarely review music written before 1950 but this is arather special case of contemporary scholarship that, in its way, occupies both the old and the new. It is Bach in the context of the modern scholar providing a unique insight for themodern listener. And, having reviewed much of Mr. Lippel’s work with contemporary music this journey to the past provides a useful perspective on the artist’s range.

This is NOT the complete Bach music for guitar (the modern guitar did not exist in Bach’s time). This NOT the complete Bach music for lute played on guitar. Rather this is the complete Bach music for “Lautenwerk”, a curious instrument which was a cross between a lute and a harpsichord. While there have been reconstructions of this unusual instrument there are no known extant instruments from Bach’s time. The instrument featured gut strings (rather than metal) which produced a softer sound. The strings were plucked with quills controlled by a keyboard in the manner of a harpsichord and pretty much anyone who played keyboard could play this instrument.

This is a performance on a guitar tuned to the “well tempered” tuning which inspired Bach’s definitive masterpiece, The Well Tempered Clavier which demonstrated the utility of the well tempered tuning system (Andreas Werckmeister’s to be specific). This differs considerably from equal temperament tuning which permeates most of the music we commonly hear in western classical traditions. While the technicalities of tuning are well beyond the scope of this review (more information is available at www.MicroFestRecords.com and in any number of learned theses on tuning) the critical fact is that this recording provides, as much as possible, the experience of hearing this music on an instrument tuned in the manner which Bach and his contemporaries used. This is about as close as one could come to hearing what Bach’s audiences heard.

All this attention to tuning scholarship, authentic instrument building, and authentic performance practice place this album in the lineage of similarly definitive recordings by the likes of Noah Greenberg and the New York Pro Musica along with artists such as David Munrow, Julian Bream, Alfred Deller, and their successors. The scholarship here draws on the work of scholars whose lineage includes Harry Partch and Ben Johnston. The liner notes are written by one of the living royalty of microtonal scholars, John Schneider (himself a guitarist and composer who is in the process of recording definitive editions of all of Harry Partch’s work). Also mentioned is the assertion by another living royalty of tuning scholarship, the composer/scholar Kyle Gann who suggests that, “hearing performances of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in modern equal temperament is like viewing Rembrandt’s work through wax paper.” The analogy is apt and the value of this recording is the “removal of the wax paper” (so to say), allowing the listener to hear something much closer to the composer’s original intent.

Of course a standard guitar cannot play these tunings so the artist turned to German luthier (guitar builder) Walter Vogt whose invention, The Fine Tunable Fretboard, graces the beautiful instrument seen on the album cover. This is the instrument we hear in this recording. It is tuned to Johann Kirnberger’s keyboard well tempered tuning system.

And now to the artist. Daniel Lippel is a guitarist, producer, and new music advocate. Though he did release a Bach on guitar recording in 2007 the majority of his work on recordings has been dominated by music composed after 1950 and actually mostly after 2000. Hearing his affinity for baroque performance practice is indeed a revelation by itself. Lippel whose virtuosity and facility with new music is well known demonstrates his facility with baroque performance turning in a ravishingly beautiful recording of this music.

There are three works on this disc, the 6 movement Suite in E minor BWV996, the four movement Suite in C minor BWV997, and the Prelude, Fuga, and Allegro BWV998. The performances are candy for the ears and food for the soul. This is a level of excellence that has this writer hoping for more."

-- Allan Cronin, New Music Buff, May 27, 2021

"This is a fantastic project by Daniel Lippel where he performs three major works by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) in their original keys on a classical guitar refretted in Baroque well temperament. Lippel’s playing is particularly well crafted and presented in terms of phrasing, articulation, and musical ideas. He’s highly creative throughout with interesting ornamentation, figuration, and articulations. It’s a great mix of modern playing in terms of guitar technique but clearly influenced by early music performance practice. I hear a lot of lute-style improvisatory ornamentation but delivered with a clarity and sound of a keyboard performance. It’s a must-listen for guitarists and one of the most interesting performances I’ve heard of these works without stepping outside of a refined Baroque aesthetic. After listening to Lippel’s performances you might find some of your favourite recordings to be quite bland in comparison. This is how I want to hear early music and Bach on the modern guitar.

Aufs Lautenwerk by Daniel Lippel is one of the most creative, interesting, and well performed albums of recent times. Essential listening for guitarists but enjoyable for anyone who wants to hear great performances of Bach."

- Bradford Werner, This is Classical Guitar, 7/16/2021

"If this is the same Daniel Lippel (and I have no reason to doubt it is) who performs solo and in collaboration with other musicians on a number of releases previously reviewed in Fanfare, then his latest album represents a radical departure from the guitar repertoire with which he has been heretofore associated. According to Raymond Tuttle, who reviewed one of the artist’s recent releases in 43:5, Lippel is a formally trained guitarist who studied at Oberlin and at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and earned his D.M.A. in 2006 in the studio of David Starobin at the Manhattan School of Music. His dissertation topic was on the guitar works of Mario Davidovsky, and throughout his career, Lippel has been most involved with new music for guitar, both in solo and chamber music contexts.

The “new music” part is an understatement. I don’t recognize a single name of any of the composers whose works Lippel has recorded. Of course, that’s hardly surprising, considering who’s writing this review. But I gather from Tuttle and others that Lippel’s repertoire is a gift that keeps on giving to those who are into just about every pop-rock, “post-punk,” avant-garde, experimental, acoustic and electric guitar music genre there is that found its way out of the 20th century and into the 21st. Which is why Lippel’s latest album of works by Bach—yes, that’s Johann Sebastian—isn’t just a surprise; it’s a shock, though for me, one that comes as a blessed relief, for “post-punk,” let alone “pre-punk,” is not my thing.

The album carries two titles. The one on the back of the carboard, fold-open cover reads Well-Tempered Guitar, while the title on the front cover reads—aufs Lautenwerk. Both, as you shall see are germane to the three works that comprise the contents of Lippel’s CD, to his playing of them, and even to his guitar and its tuning.

For the most part, I would have to say that Schneider’s moveable fret guitar and Kirnberger tuning sound close to normal to me. It’s a mellow, plummy sound, though I doubt it would be mistaken for a lute. As for the tuning business—and longtime readers know how sensitive I am to pitch—I hear nothing that sounds untoward in melodic passages—that is where notes are played sequentially on one string at a time. On close listening, however, in passages involving chords—that is where notes are played simultaneously—I do detect a slight “off-ness” in the fourths and fifths which renders the harmonic units not quite as “in tune” in the intentionally mistuned way we’re used to hearing them in equal temperament. Nothing here, however, approaches the degree to which you’d feel the need to syringe out your ears.

That changes to some extent in BWV 997, which, by the way, the album designates Sonata in C Minor. Technically, I suppose, it is a sonata of the da chiesa type—Preludio, Fuga, Sarabande, and Gigue—but all references to the piece I’ve come across designate it as Suite in C Minor, which is how I listed it in the headnote to this review.

Anyway, this is the piece in which Lippel discusses his use of a capo on the third fret, the purpose of which, as I understand it, “is to raise the pitch of a fretted instrument so it can play in a different key using the same fingerings as playing open (i.e., without a capo). In effect, a capo uses a fret of an instrument to create a new nut at a higher note than the instrument’s actual nut.” It would be like placing a dam across all four strings of a violin—hard to do since they’re not in the same plane as the strings on a guitar—three steps above the open strings, thereby shortening the length the strings have to vibrate and raising the pitch. Thus, instead of G-D-A-E, the open strings would sound C-G-D-A.

In the case of Lippel’s capo clamped onto the third fret across the guitar’s strings, beyond raising the pitch, the effect, according to Lippel, “lends a lightness of texture which is consistent with lute registration.” That may be, but for the first time, his guitar seems to be more audibly affected by Kirnberger’s tuning system.

Johann Kirnberger (1721–1783) was a student of Bach who distinguished himself as an uninspired composer who turned to an obsessive absorption in the mathematics of music to compensate for his lack of talent. His first tuning temperament, Kirnberger I, was so complex, dealing with syntonic and Pythagorean commas and interval ratios of 40/27, that it was simply unworkable in the real world. Kirnberger II was an attempt at simplification, but even it had no takers. So, Kirnberger III went further still in untying the Gordian knots he had created in Kirnbergers I and II.

There’s zero evidence that Bach was influenced by or adopted any of Kirberger’s theories when it came to the tuning system Bach settled on for his Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 of which was written in the early 1720s when Kirnberger would have been only two or three years old and not yet a former student of Bach, let alone even a future one.

As noted above, Lippel’s use of a capo in the C-Minor Suite, BWV 997, does seem to render the effect of the Kirnberger tuning more noticeable. For the first time, my ear balked at some of the notes that really do sound “off.” And you don’t have to be as pitch-sensitive as I am to hear it for yourself. It’s very obvious on the sixth note in the exposed statement of the fugue subject, where the preceding ascending scale reaches a G and then plunges down a major 7th to A♭. By equal temperament tuning expectations, the intervals in the entire ascending scale sound ever so slightly “bent” either sharp or flat, but it’s the drop to the A♭ and everything that follows it that strikes my ear as having a sourness to it I don’t detect in the other works.

It was, of course, an aesthetic decision on Lippel’s part to use a guitar with moveable frets and to adopt an 18th-century, non-equal-temperament tuning system. I will not judge those choices favorably or unfavorably, for they were personal. I’ve long lived with and admired more conventional guitar performances of these works by John Williams, Sharon Isbin, and, more recently on a beautiful BIS recording by Franz Halász. And, as I’m sure every reader knows, once a certain sound has become fixed in a listener’s head, it’s hard to adjust to a sound that challenges one’s preconception of how a piece is supposed to sound.

I credit Daniel Lippel for daring to do something different here. No doubt, as I said earlier, his readings of these familiar pieces are bound to be controversial. That, however, must not detract from the fact that Lippel is a player of exceptional technique and the highest degree of musical sensitivity. He knows what he wants out of his instrument and he knows how to get it; and while his choices of medium and means to achieve it may be a bit unorthodox, I believe he knows what Bach wanted and how to communicate that to the listener.

If I have any criticism to lodge, it’s not against Lippel’s choices of instrument and tuning, and certainly not of his playing, but rather of the ungenerous playing time of the disc, which, I might add, is selling at an unapologetically full price. There was easily space left on the disc for at least one more of Bach’s lute pieces, which is easily demonstrated by most players that have recorded these works.

Recommended to those whose curiosity is piqued by Daniel Lippel’s non-mainstream, alternative approach to these works."
-- Jerry Dubins, Fanfare, September 2021

"The esteemed guitarist Daniel Lippel has built an impressive resume that includes 50+ solo and chamber works as well as recitals all over the globe. Here he takes on a innovative project that transforms 3 time honored J.S. Bach masterworks from their original keys into a classical guitar refretted in Baroque well temperament.

“Preludio” starts the listen and draws the listener in immediately with its flowing guitar work and graceful exploration that’s quite complicated but not so esoteric it can’t be universally appreciated, and “Allemande” follows with a swift pace of sweeping beauty and smooth dexterity.

Further into the listen, “Gigue” amazes us with its sublime finger acrobatics and flowing melodies, as does the very poetic and hypnotic “Fugue”. “Sarabande”, a truly exceptional track, then meshes restraint with adventurousness in a truly fascinating display.

Near to the end, “Fugue” BWV998 in Eflat glides with a warm, introspective spirit, and “Allegro” exits the listen with an intricate progression that’s so well executed it’s almost perplexing in its grand presence.

If you’re familiar with the originals, there’s little doubt that this album will occupy much of your time. And if you haven’t spent any time with Bach previously, you’ll still find yourself immersed in these charming, soulful renditions." - Tom Haugen, Take Effect Reviews, July 5, 2021

"As one grows older, if one has taken advantage of the availability of the music of Bach over the years, Bach speaks to the listening self with ever more clarity and movement, so that at least for me Bach takes a central place often enough among various musical things and so I gain ever more from the hearing.

So today there is a recent volume of Bach that speaks volumes to me--namely Daniel Lippel's The Well Tempered Guitar, aufs Lautenwerk (New Focus Recordings FCR 920 MF18). It is, as the subtitle suggests, music Bach intended for the lute. Adapting it to the guitar involves foremost a guitar-centered aural sense, a sensitivity to making the glorious music sound anew. Daniel does just that.

If you are like me some of this music will be very familiar--through hearing guitar or lute versions or even arrangements for other instruments. Others might seem somewhat less familiar, to me anyway. All is welcome, deeply satisfying on multiple listens. So we get the five movement Suite in Em BWV 996, the four movement Sonata in Cm BWV 997 and the three movement Prelude, Fuga & Allegro in Eb BWV 998.

Daniel Lippel gives us a kind of whole cloth reading of the music, with equal weight given to each part in counterpoint and/or stretching into aural space. The line weaving is smoothly phrased so we can take it all in as the unity it was intended to be. There's not a lot of rubato and as you listen it seems quite right, quite as it no doubt sounded to Bach as he conceived it.

This is extraordinarily deep music in the end, extraordinarily phased and sounded by Maestro Lippel. Very recommended."

-- Grego Applegate Edwards, Gapplegate Classical Modern Music Review, 7/14/2021

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