Artist Interview: Miguel Yisrael, lute

By Patrick Burke on February 25, 2014

At the forefront of the new generation of international concert lutenists, Lisbon-born, Paris-based Miguel Yisrael has been called the new prince of the baroque lute. A self-described "artist with an archaeologist's approach," he is capable of rendering the refinement of the 17th century French lute repertoire in all its subtlety by joining rhythmic conviction with a perfect mastery of detail and ornamentation. Before he makes his PCMS debut on March 7, Miguel graciously answered a few questions about his program, his musical training and pedagogy and his hand made Cezar Mateus lute.

Patrick Burke:  You will be performing a program entitled The King’s Lute: French baroque lute music from Versailles. Could you tell us a little more about the compositions our audience will hear on this recital? And how did you come to choose this collection of works?

Migel Yisrael:  On most of my programs, I try to play pieces still unknown to the public. Germain Pinel was a very important composer at his time. Yet, today, he remains almost unknown to the grand public. Both Louis XIII and Louis XIV, his son, studied the lute with Pinel. This is the conductor line of this program. Louis XIV, at his adult age, after his 50’s, also took lessons of baroque guitar with Robert de Visée, another famous French lute, guitar and theorbo composer of the late XVII century. Louis XIII and Louis XIV were both passionate music lovers, and most of all, lutenists. The lute was always the instrument of kings.

PB:  You studied with Claire Antonini at the Paris Conservatoire and Hopkinson Smith at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland. Could you tell us about your years of study, and how your teachers shaped you as a musician?

MY:  My studies in Paris were the time of my discovery of the lute since I was formerly a guitar player. I learned the basics of lute playing, but I must say that my true learning of the lute started in Basel with Hopkinson Smith. He truly shaped my way of listening to music and the way of approaching the lute. An important aspect of these years in Switzerland was the fact that I was studying from 10 to sometimes 12 hours every day.

PB:  You yourself are a widely sought-after lute teacher. In 2008 you published your Method for the Baroque Lute: A practical guide for beginning and advanced lutenists. What inspired you to write this text and what are your hopes for those who use it?

MY:  At first I did this book because I wanted to have some material with which to work my students. But with time, I realized that I needed to do something more substantial since nothing really like it was available in the market. In the same way that I try to introduce the public to new lute repertoires, I try to bring the lute to as many people as possible. This is a truly beautiful instrument that needs to be heard and played all over the world.

PB:  In 2012 you released your Austria 1676 CD which features works by Wolff Jacob Lauffensteiner and Georg Weichenberger. Could you tell us the process of recording that album, and do you have any new projects in the works?

MY:  Of my 3 recordings, this one was the most difficult one to do. This was because I was in the middle of an intense research for lutes, historical meaning and sound quality and aesthetics. Such research makes you improve a lot, but it is also profoundly destabilizing. The program of this CD (most of the pieces were world premieres) is part of my other intense researches on re-discovering new repertoires and proposing new ideas to the lute world. Most of what was written for the Baroque lute (200 years of solo music) is not recorded. Much of this music we still don’t even know who wrote it down (many of the pieces are not signed). I see myself as an artist with an archaeologist's approach.

PB:  Lastly, our audience is always interested in the instruments that our artists play on. I know that your lute was built by Cezar Mateus, but could you tell us about your lute’s construction and why you chose this particular craftsman?

MY:  It would take me pages and pages to explain my experience on this matter. I’ve worked with Cezar Mateus, a wonderful lute maker from Princeton, New Jersey, since my beginnings on the lute. Cezar has a way of working the wood as refined and precise as you would aspect from baroque French Cabinet makers like Charles André Boulle. And, most importantly, Cezar has a sound he dreams of, and it is very close to the sound I search for.

But, three years ago, I decided to try other lutes from other makers, and bought and sold many lutes in three years. At a point, I decided to go back to the books and treaties of the 17th and 18th centuries, to get inspired by what they were looking at at that time. I rediscovered that all sources mentioned Laux Maler, a German lute maker from the 16th century. So I looked for all the lutes from this maker that we have today and realized that, of four existing all over the world (in museums), only two were complete instruments. So I’ve managed to get a plan drawing of the lute in the Lobkovich Collection, in Prague, and sent it to Cezar Mateus who made me a copy of such a lute (an 11 course French baroque lute). This is also important that with Cezar, we can work together and look for new ideas and sounds. This instrument is absolutely different from any other lute I’ve played, and that was very disturbing in the beginning. Sometimes it still is, because it is a new instrument. But this tends to become eventually the best lute I’ve ever played with, and goes far beyond my expectations. Also, this is historically the kind of lute the French in the 17th century were looking for, going to Bologna, in Italy (where all famous lute makers were working, most of them German) and buying old 16th century Renaissance lutes from Laux Maler and getting them transformed into Baroque lutes. This tour in the USA will be the first time this lute is played on official concerts; it is my debut and this lute’s debut in the USA! And this will also be the first time that Cezar Mateus, the man who built this lute, will listen to it in concert!

Miguel Yisrael, lute appears on Friday, March 7, 2014 at the American Philosophical Society. For tickets and information visit the concert page.

For more information on Miguel Yisrael, please visit his website.