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"The Susanne van Soldt Virginal Book"

Guy Penson, virginals; Patrick Denecker, recorder
rec: June 2007, Bolland, Église Saint-Apollinaire
Ricercar - RIC 264 (© 2008) (55'21")

anon: [without title]; Alemande Loreyne; Almande; Almande Brun Smeedelyn; Almande de amour; Almande de La nonette; Almande de symmerman; Almande prynce; Almande trycottee; Als een Her gejaecht; Brabanschen ronden dans ofte Brand; Brande champagne; De frans galliard; De quadre galliard; De quadre pavanne; Des boosdoenders Wille seer quaet; Galliarde Bassanni; Galliarde quy passe; Ghij Herder Israels Wylt Hooren; Godt die der goden Heer; Myn siele wilt den Herre; Ontfarmt V. over mij arme Sondaer; Pavane dan Vers; Pavane Prymera; Pavano Bassano; Preludium; Susanna Vung Jour; Tobyas om sterven gheneghen; Wt de diepte o Heere; Jacob VAN EYCK (1589/90-1657): Herr ick wil u uyt 's herter grond; Myn siele wilt den Herre

It is a well-known collection of pieces for many keyboard players, the so-called Susanne van Soldt-manuscript, or - as it is called here - Virginal Book. The latter name reflects what Guy Penson thinks this music was intended for, the virginals. That isn't a matter of bold speculation: the manuscript reflects the music practice in the Netherlands, and the virginals were arguably the most widespread keyboard instrument among the upper class in the Low Countries. Antwerp was a centre of keyboard building, and a famous builder like Ruckers built many virginals, some of which have been preserved.

The question musicologists have tried to answer is who this Susanne van Soldt might have been. One of them is Alan Curtis, who edited the modern edition of this manuscript, published in 1961. It seems almost certain that Susanne van Soldt was the daughter of a wealthy Protestant merchant from Antwerp, who fled to London after the siege of the city by the Spanish in 1585. The archives of the Dutch Reformed Church in London record a baptism of a Susanne, daughter of Hans van Soldt, on 20 May 1586. As Susanne put her name and the year 1599 on the fly leaf of the manuscript, one may conclude that it contained material for her keyboard lessons, which would fit with her age of 13.

The manuscript contains pieces which were very popular in the Low Countries. Most of them are dances and songs, the kind of pieces frequently published by printers in Paris and Antwerp. Some are based on French, others on Italian models. They contain moderate ornamentation, also a argument for the assumption this was material for educational purposes. In addition some slightly ornamented harmonisations of Psalm settings are in the manuscript. The melodies are from the Genevan Psalter, used by the French Huguenots and the Calvinists in the Netherlands. This is additional evidence that Susanne van Soldt belonged to a Protestant family.

Guy Penson uses two different kind of virginals, both copied after historical originals by Jef Van Boven in Ekeren. The first is a typical Ruckers instrument, called a mother and child virginal. "The name 'mother and child'coms from a peculiarity in the instrument's construction: insid the instrument is another smaller virginal that can be removed, like a baby leaving its mother's womb. This smaller virginal sounds an octave higher and can be played separately as well as being coupled to the main keyboard. After having removed the jack rail from the main instrument, the smaller instrument is placed on top of the larger; thanks to a clever mechanism, the jacks of the larger instrument also push those of the smaller instrument and the two arrays of strings thus play simultaneously" (Jérôme Lejeune in the booklet). The other instrument is a 'normal' instrument, also modelled after an original Ruckers instrument; it is what was called a muselaer in the Low Countries.

Pieces from this collection are regularly performed and recorded, but this is the first recording of the complete manuscript. This was a splendid idea as it not only gives a very good impression of music life in the Low Countries around 1600, but also contains very good and enoyable music. Guy Penson has ordered the pieces in such a way that there is a large amount of variety in form and character between the pieces. He also has ordered them in groups, which are played almost without interruption. This ensures this is more than a sequence of very short pieces - most last less than 2 minutes. In addition Patrick Denecker plays some pieces by Jacob van Eyck, th famous Dutch recorder player of the 17th century. He is historically quite a bit later than the time this manuscript was compiled, but stylistically he is pretty close to what this collection contains. Denecker also joins Guy Penson in some pieces from the Susanne van Soldt-manuscript, and Penson on his turn joins Denecker in one of Van Eyck's pieces.

This is a very interesting and musically anthralling recording. Many of the melodies will be familiar to people who regularly listen to 'early music'. Both artists give splendid performances, lively, imaginative and with rhythmic flexibility. The instruments have been excellently recorded and the booklet gives all the information one needs. In short, an exemplary production.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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