RECOMMENDED Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750), Complete Lute Works - ARCANA A529

.... The works are often unidiomatic, so they require adjustments (including key changes) to be playable on the lute, but one would not be aware of any difficulties when listening to Evangelina Mascardi’s recording. What she has achieved is extraordinary. She is always playing with unwavering musical conviction, as if these works flow out from her and her lute. Anyone who knows this music well will have their own stubborn ideas about how they should be played (as I confess I do), but Mascardi is the sort of player who will persuade you of her particular interpretation.

MusicWeb International, 2022 May, Steven Watson

One of the most pleasing aspects of Mascardi’s playing is her use of ornaments. Sometimes they are breath-taking, like the wild and thrilling ornamentation at the end of the first section of the Allegro BWV 998. But mostly they are flowing and natural, and draw attention not to themselves but to the melody and phrasing. This is particularly evident in the sarabandes in BWV 996 and 997. Listen to the Sarabande in BWV 997 and hear how Mascardi can intensify the musical expression with ornaments. This is an area where the lute offers something quite different: its slurs are lighter than the plucked note, unlike the harpsichord where ornaments often increase the strength of sound. This means that ornaments have a special kind of grace to them. In the Sarabandes, we are treated to how expertly Mascardi uses the grace of lute.

The Sarabande in BWV 996 is even more magical. It has to be one of the most beautiful dance movements Bach ever wrote. Mascardi’s ornaments are perfectly placed – we dance between agony and grace. These ornaments give suspense to the music, increasing its already profound melodic intensity. I have heard this sarabande a thousand times before, yet I was still on the edge of my seat waiting for the harmonic resolutions. At the end, Mascardi does not linger, but plays it more like an exhalation of breath.

The one sarabande not yet mentioned, from suite BWV 995, is for me the most unusual of all lute works. A transcription from the Cello Suite No. 5, it is unusually minimal music with very few notes, a test of musicality and interpretative sense. Unlike the other sarabandes, Mascardi plays it with no ornamentation (in stark contrast to the heavily-ornamented Allemande that precedes it). It is phrased very carefully. The result is spare and haunting music that sounds not unlike a minimalist piece by Arvo Pärt.

The phrasing and articulation is always well considered in these performances. Listen to the way Mascardi makes the Gigue in 997 BWV feel stiff and restrained, like a person holding back tears; then how it bursts into a torrent of notes in the Double: the basses staccato, the tempo agitated and fiendishly quick. She pauses at crucial moments in the preludes of BWV 997 and 998, suspending the music in a way that literally took my breath away for several seconds. She demonstrates expert rhythmic flexibility in the courante BWV 996 – notes inégales, always with a clear pulse but never an exact and robotic reading of the note lengths. This is Baroque performance practice at its best.

One other aspect of Mascardi’s interpretations I must note is her tempo decisions. Her playing on this disc is often slower and more reflective than others’. There are certainly exceptions: the Prelude in BWV 1006a is taken at a joyous speed, as is the second Gavotte in BWV 995 (but this speed is always executed with controlled musical purpose). More commonly, though, Mascardi errs on the slower side. Many players play the Prelude BWV 999 at a brisk tempo – a temptation since it is one of the more idiomatic of Bach’s lute pieces, consisting of fixed chords arpeggiated with the right hand. Mascardi, however, plays it much more slowly, at what feels like just the right speed. This is not an innovation of hers by any means, but she does it so well. You feel acutely the harmonic tensions in the prelude that often go by unemphasised and unnoticed.

Other notable tempo decisions include the contrapuntal presto section in the Prelude of 996 BWV, which is taken at a relaxed, almost melancholy pace. The Giga in the same suite is taken at a gentle, courtly tempo. The Fugue in BWV 997, perhaps the pinnacle of Bach’s oeuvre for lute, is played in a sombre – even funereal – way. It is entirely different than, say, guitarist Sean Shibe’s recent superb recording (Delphian DCD34233, review), which is over two minutes shorter than Mascardi’s eight-minute performance. I still prefer the faster tempo, but others may appreciate the way a slower interpretation helps the listener to follow the different voices. Among the slower interpretations of this fugue, Mascardi’s is certainly the best I have heard. By contrast, her performance of the famous Fugue BWV 1000, which ends the recording, is characterised by an exciting feeling of momentum.

This is now my favourite lute recording of the complete Bach lute works. On guitar, I recommend Stephan Schmidt (Naïve V4861), whose ten-string instrument serves the music well. He not only plays it the most convincingly, but his interpretations are very different than Mascardi. On lautenwerk, for which it is now commonly believed Bach wrote some of these works, I recommend Elizabeth Farr’s recording (Naxos 8.570470-71, review).

In addition to Mascardi’s extraordinary playing, the audio is gorgeous and resonant. The digipack is attractive, with comprehensive booklet notes by guitarist Frederic Zigante, colleague of Mascardi at the Conservatorio Antonio Vivaldi. A must-have for those who love Bach or the lute – or both.

Steven Watson