Jacques le Polonois: Pièces de Luth

Paul Kieffer
Ævitas Æ-12157

Jacques le Polonois (c. 1545-55 – c. 1605), otherwise known as Jakub Polak or Jacob Reys, was born in Poland, and moved to Paris probably in 1574, where he became one of the most outstanding lutenists of his generation. According to Henri Sauval in his Histoire… de Paris, Jacob Reys attached no importance to money and drank heavily, which apparently helped him play. Interestingly, Sauval describes Jacob’s playing technique: “he hardly raised his fingers and seemed to have them glued to the lute.” I take this to mean that Jacob probably played with a thumb-outside technique, as does Paul Kieffer for this recording. A modern edition of Jacob’s music is available: Jakub Polak (Jacob Polonois), Utwory Zebrane Oeuvres Collected Works, ed. Piotr Pozniak (Kraków: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1993). His music is distinctly French in character, and foreshadows the development of lute music in France in the 17th century, in particular the style brisé.

The CD gets off to a good start with Prelude Polonois (Pozniak XI) from Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s manuscript. Kieffer plays it twice, adding a few graces here and there, and playing with a delicate touch, which I find subtly expressive. The tonality of Gall[iard] Polonois (track 2) reminds me of the lute music of Robert Ballard (c. 1572-5 – after 1650). I like Kieffer’s interpretation, with added graces and his own tasteful divisions for repeats. The similarity with Ballard becomes a reality in track 3, the first half of which is a Courante by Ballard, and the second half by Jacob. In Volte (track 4) Jacob creates contrasts of timbre with a wide range of melodic notes – down to the 6th course in bar 24, and then up to the 8th fret of the 1st course a couple of bars later. In bar 40 he switches octaves after a passage of descending thirds, to have the unexpected bright sound of a high b’ natural. The piece ends with a hemiola, a device Jacob often uses. His setting of Susanne un Jour (not based on the familiar setting by Lassus) is a nice piece of polyphony, with a section where a slow-moving melody is accompanied by flowing quavers below. One pleasing aspect of Kieffer’s playing is not to spread or roll chords excessively. He uses them here and there for a special effect, e.g. in bars 21-4 of a prelude (track 6) for some chords high up the neck, but generally he plucks notes neatly together, which enables polyphonic lines to come through clearly. Puzzlingly he makes what I think are unnecessary changes in the Fantasia (track 8) from 21v of Besard’s Thesaurus Harmonicus  (1603), simplifying fast notes at cadences. Jacob’s music is more akin to 17th-century French lute music as far as his choice of flat keys is concerned. Prelude Jacob (track 9) is flat enough in A flat major, but Fantasie Jacob (track 10) is in the extraordinary key of A flat minor – the transcription has a key signature of seven flats. In contrast to the many preludes and fantasies, there is a lively Sarabande, played with panache, and which literally gave my spine a tingle. According to the play list, 18 of the 28 tracks are premiere recordings. Kieffer plays an 8-course lute by Grant Tomlinson, strung in gut, and with the lowest two courses retuned where necessary.

Stewart McCoy