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The Art of the Lute: Academy of Ancient Music with Thomas Dunford

Thomas Dunford is one of the foremost lutenists in the world, and at the West Road Concert Hall on Sunday evening (February 23), the Academy of Ancient Music, under his direction, gave a superlative performance of works for the lute by JS Bach, Vivaldi and Buxtehude, as well as featuring Thomas himself as a solo instrumentalist.

Academy of Ancient Music
Academy of Ancient Music

The lute as an instrument derives from the middle-eastern oud, and was the king of instruments in baroque times before the demand for louder sound and more conspicuous virtuosity caused it to fall out of fashion in favour of the guitar, much in the way that the viol eventually came to be replaced by the cello.

Placed somewhere between the harp and the guitar and, with its 14 strings - looking rather like a larger version of the mandolin - the lute belongs (in some ways resembling the saxophone) to a big family of instruments; there are tenor lutes, alto lutes, treble lutes and others.

Thomas Dunford, once memorably described in a classical music monthly as ‘the Eric Clapton of the lute’, has said that the repertoire for the instrument is huge, like the piano’s in fact, numbering surprisingly as many as 30,000 pieces, an indication of the lute’s immense one-time popularity.

Thomas joined the company for the opening work, Bach’s orchestral Suite No.2 in B minor, BWV 1067. Most prominent here throughout is the flute, and flautist Rachel Brown gave a sterling account, especially in the famously difficult and well-known Badinerie which requires a combination of outstanding musicianship and great stamina.

Of only four suites of Bach’s to survive, the B minor displays its composer’s complete command of orchestration as well as his seemingly endless inventiveness and ear for melody. One of the movements featured a passage for flute, cello and lute whose performing trio gave a captivating realisation of the French dance style on which it is based.

AAM (The Academy of Ancient Music). Picture: Patrick Harrison
AAM (The Academy of Ancient Music). Picture: Patrick Harrison

Following on was Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto from Trio Sonata in C major for lute, violin and continuo RV 82, a pleasing, short work in three movements, the central one involving Thomas Dunford playing a beautiful melancholic sequence on lute, with a violin supplying its gently pulsing accompaniment.

Immediately after the interval the lights dimmed, and Thomas Dunford performed Bach’s Suite for Solo lute in G minor, BWV 995. It was a truly stunning and atmospheric delivery. The lute has a softness of tone and, as Thomas has described it, a certain intimacy with the human voice and body.

The audience was totally focused imagining, perhaps like me, the hours that must have gone into achieving this degree of accomplishment, and perhaps too reflecting on the sheer miracle that is the human hand and its ability to produce such magic.

Two more compositions followed. Dietrich Buxtehude’s Trio Sonata for violin, viola da gamba and continuo in B flat major Op.1 No. 4 Bux WV 255, a sprightly and melodic work for the most part with four superb instrumentalists at work, and some vigorous and energetic bowing from the Academy’s brilliant first violin, Bojan Ĉiĉić.

Last of all came Vivaldi once more; his Concerto for lute and strings in D major, RV 93, integrating Thomas Dunford’s virtuosic lute contribution and evoking much exchanging of smiles from the AAM’s musicians, obviously happy to have him in their midst.

As indeed were we, the audience, but for all too short a time, or so it felt, as this very tight ship, the AAM, packed up its instruments and yet another of its wonderful concerts, as close to musical perfection as it’s possible to get, had regrettably come to an end.

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