It’s a clever title. “Two Lutes with Grace” refers to Marc Lewen and Paul Kieffer (lutes), and Grace Newcombe (vocal). And it’s a valuable release. In the late 1400s, lute duos were one of the most common forms of professional ensembles. Lewen and Kieffer carefully reconstruct what these duos may have performed, using current musicological findings.
The resulting album is both informative and entertaining. The plectrum in the title refers to an elongated pick. Using a plectrum gave the lute a cleaner and louder sound than using one’s fingertips. And using two instruments further increased the volume, as well as allowing for fuller harmonies and complex counterpoint.
When Lewen and Kieffer play matched lutes, the sound amplification is evident. In a way, the effect reminded me of piano four hands. It’s a sound that’s close to the solo instrument, but somehow bigger and fuller.
While some of the works were originally written for the lute (or lute duet), others are arrangements of songs. Vocalist Grace Newcomb provides context. Each of her selections is followed by the same piece in a lute duo version.
Lewen and Kieffer further vary the texture by occasionally matching a lute with a gittern. This smaller member of the lute family is also played with a plectrum. It has a slightly different timbre than the lute (as well as a higher range). The interplay between the two instruments is easy to hear, making the tracks stand out from the homogenous sound of the two lute selections.
Lewen and Kieffer play with precision and sensitivity. Although continually playing staccato, both connect lines through their phrasing. This keeps the music from devolving into an unending barrage of notes.
Newcomb sings in with a slightly dark mezzo-soprano. As is common with early music practices, she eschews vibrato. Her voice contrasts nicely with the accompanying lutes, delivering the melodies with exceptional beauty.
Highly recommended — especially for those only familiar with solo lute recordings.
Two Lutes with Grace: Plectrum Lute Duos of the Late 15th Century
Marc Lewen, Paul Kieffer, lute; Grace Newcombe, voice