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The question's too difficult, but I can say that five lute players whose recordings I've always found very rewarding are Toyohiko Satoh, Lex Eisenhardt, Anthony Rooley, Louis Pernot and Anders Ericson.

As far as composers and works are concerned, I think that the composer who means most to me is Esaias Reusner. He seems to me to stand to the lute as Froberger stands to the keyboard, a level of expressiveness which is consistently poignant, and a level of counterpoint which is consistently stimulating.
 

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I love the Peter Pears/Julian Bream collaborations on Dowland. Those records (back in the day) inspired me to pick up the lute. And since I'm fond of a good song, Dowland has always gotten the nod as my favorite lute composer. I mean, he writes good songs, he's the "Eric Clapton" of his day on the lute......and he does all of this while working for MI5. :D
For me it was less Dowland, more Have You Seen But A White Lily Grow? Unfortunately I can't see it on youtube.
 

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Taking a step off the beaten track, if by 'classical music' we include non-western music (and why not?), then certainly one of the greatest musicians to play a lute-type instrument, the sarod, is Ali Akbar Khan. Raga Chandranandan is one of countless examples of Ali Akbar Khan's genius. Another great musician, Julian Bream, expresses his admiration.

This came out a couple of weeks ago, Rick -- given your penchant for Japanese culture, for baroque and for plucked instruments, I'd have thought it would be essential listening for you.

Organism Font Rectangle Adaptation Liquid


https://f4.bcbits.com/img/a3162889989_16.jpg

Here is an example of Iki fashion: A person wearing
a simple and unspectacular Kimono with luxurious,
patterned lining material. The colorful lining playfully
peeks out once in a while but is never completely visible.
Similarly, there is a tale about Murata Jukō, a man known
as the founder of the Japanese tea ceremony. He was
making tea in his dingy little hut when a curious samurai
passed by and tried to get a glimpse inside. The samurai
then noticed that an extremely expensive horse was tied
outside the hut. Inside was a frugal looking man sitting by
himself, just making tea. . .

The 17th-century French music holds a similar aesthetic.
Style Brisé may at first appear like ordinary music with
some irregularly broken chords, but when listened to closely, you may hear that all pieces are in fact polyphonic.
The distances between the notes are often so far that the
melodies are not immediately noticeable. However, once
you recognize the melody line, its sharp and clear beauty
will emerge. To me, this resembles a delicate and alluring
beauty on a woodblock print.
There's a lot of interesting musicians who focus on the c17 and earlier coming out of Japan at the moment -- lute and harpsichord and voice even.
 
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