Thoughts on Free Ornamentation
I've been on a huge lute kick for the past couple of months, and it's informing my Bach performance in a significant way. I've felt for a long time that there is a lot of good stuff that we can borrow from guitarists and lutenists, if only because both of those instruments go "plink," just like the marimba; bowed strings don't go plink. Marimbists are in a particularly good position to adapt ideas from guitar and lute performance rather than wish, in vain, for our instrument to somehow turn into one that can sustain a continuous tone.
The listening kick was inspired by the lutenists Hopkinson Smith and Nigel North, both of whom have recorded their transcriptions/adaptations of the complete cello suites and violin sonatas and partitas. Like most of the lute/guitar recordings of Bach that I've heard, Smith and North use French ornaments (agrèments) in an intelligent and sensitive way to help fill the space that can be left between notes. Their performances also contain more tempo flexibility than I'm used to hearing, but not so much as to detract overall.
What blew me away about these recordings, however, were the different ways in which North and Smith used free ornamentation, especially in Sarabandes and other slow movements. I'm now playing the Sarabande from the E-flat cello suite with some fairly extensive free ornamentation, and the results seem pretty compelling. I'll be taking the next few blog posts in this series to describe the path I took to get there, and where it seems to point for the future.