musica Dei donum
Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562 - 1621): Keyboard Works
[I] "Music for Harpsichord"
Glen Wilson, harpsichorda
rec: May 11 - 13, 2008, Rugheim (Unterfranken, D), Schuttbau
Naxos - 8.570894 (© 2009) (77'28")
[II] "Keyboard Works, Volume 2"
Robert Woolley, harpsichordb, virginalc
rec: Oct 20 - 21, 2006, Glynde Church (East Sussex, UK)
Chandos - CHAN 0758 (© 2009) (63'37")
anon [? Melchior SCHILDT (1592/93-1667)]:
Fantasia 1. toni à 4a;
Lucas OSIANDER (1534-1604):
Nun komm, der Heiden Heilanda;
Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK:
Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (SwWV 299)a;
Almande Gratie (More Palatino) (SwWV 318)c;
Die flichtig Nimphae (Vluchtige nymph) (SwWV 331)b;
Echo Fantasia in C (SwWV 253)a;
Est-ce Mars (SwWV 321)ab;
Fantasia crommatica à 4 (SwWV 258)ab;
Fortune my foe (SwWV 320)a;
Mein junges Leben hat ein End (SwWV 324)ab;
Paduana Lachrimae (SwWV 328)ac;
Passomezo a 4 Voc. (Passamezzo moderno) (SwWV 326)a;
Pavan Philippi (after Peter Philips) (SwWV 329)ab;
Praeludium (Fantasia) in F Ionian mode (SwWV 265)a;
Toccata in C (SwWV 283)b;
Toccata 1. toni in d minor (SwWV 286)ab;
Toccata 2. toni in g minor (SwWV 292)c;
Toccata 9. toni in a minor (SwWV 297)b;
Unter der Linden grune (Onder een linde groen) (SwWV 325)c;
Von der Fortuna werd ich getrieben (Engelse Fortuijn) (SwWV 320)c
Very few, if any, composers have so strongly influenced the development of keyboard music in Europe as Girolamo Frescobaldi and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. Their music found wide dissemination and they were much sought after as teachers. Through their pupils they had a lasting influence on composing for the keyboard which reaches as far as Johann Sebastian Bach. Frescobaldi has been given much wider attention than his Dutch contemporary. In 2002 the latter's complete oeuvre for keyboard was recorded for the first time.
Sweelinck did not only compose music for keyboard. He published four books with polyphonic settings of the Psalms on the melodies of the Genevan psalter. A collection with Latin motets, called Cantiones sacrae, was printed in 1619. Moreover he wrote chansons, madrigals and canons. In 2010 the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam finished its project of recording all of Sweelinck's vocal music, under the title The Sweelinck monument.
But Sweelinck will always be first associated with the keyboard, and that was already the case in his own time. In particular in Germany his reputation as an organist was such that young keyboard players went to Amsterdam to study with Sweelinck, or were sent to him by their employers. Nicknames like 'Orpheus of Amsterdam' and 'the German organist maker' bear witness to the high esteem in which he was held.
At about the same time two discs were released with some of Sweelinck's keyboard music played on harpsichord or virginals. Both discs include pieces which also could be played at the organ. In many cases the choice is up to the interpreters. Sweelinck was organist of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, but he wasn't at the service of the church. In Sunday services the organ was not used. Under the authority of the city council he played during weekdays to entertain the inhabitants of Amsterdam. Because of that there is little reason to assume he only played sacred music at the organ. It is likely he would also have performed variations on popular tunes of his time. He was particularly famous for that, and improvised such variations at the harpsichord during performances at home or in social gatherings of members of the bourgeoisie.
The Chandos disc is the second Robert Woolley has devoted to Sweelinck's keyboard music. On his first disc he played the organ. I don't know wether a complete recording is planned, but with these two discs one gets a very good impression of the art of Sweelinck. In this second volume Robert Woolley plays two instruments. The first is a claviorganum: an organ with a harpsichord on top of it. This instrument is a copy of a claviorganum built by Lodewijk Theewes in 1579. It is currently preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Woolley only plays the harpsichord of this claviorganum. The second instrument is a copy of a pair of virginals built by the famous Flemish keyboard builder Ioannes Ruckers in 1611. This is a so-called muselar, a typically Flemish form of virginals with the keyboard placed off-centre to the right. Glen Wilson only uses a harpsichord, which is a copy of another instrument by Ruckers. The exact date of the original is not given but in his liner-notes Wilson writes: "Since he [Sweelinck] died only about twenty years before the type of double [double-manual harpsichord] I use was invented, I hope I may be pardoned by purists".
One doesn't need to be a purist to have some objections to this choice, and particularly the way he uses this instrument. The sound is rather thick and heavy, and that makes some pieces in his recording somewhat ponderous. That effect is exacerbated by Wilson's sometimes rather slow tempi and his habit of playing the notes of chords mostly simultaneously, whereas Robert Woolley often plays them as an arpeggio. His playing is generally more relaxed and he has the faster tempi. There is no such thing as a 'right' or 'wrong' tempo in this music but on the whole I prefer Woolley's tempi as they sound more natural to my ears and let the music flow.
Glen Wilson makes heavy weather of some pieces, in particular the variations on Est-ce Mars, where he also creates strong contrasts in tempo between the variations. Some are extremely slow, others very fast. Woolley takes more of a middle ground here, and that seems to me just right. The same goes for Mein junges Leben hat ein End, and - to take a quite different piece - the Pavan Philippi. In the Fantasia crommatica Woolley and Wilson have chosen almost the same tempo, but the former's performance is to be preferred. That shows that it isn't just the tempo which is the issue, but also the way of playing. Wilson often couples the manuals or the 8' and 4' registers, and that makes the sound of the harpsichord even heavier. He also regularly changes the registration during a piece which seems questionable from a historical perspective.
I have much enjoyed the performances by Robert Woolley who plays at a consistently high level and seems to have grasped the character of Sweelinck's music quite well. The fiery performance of the brilliant Toccata 9. toni which opens the programme sets the tone. I prefer his harpsichord in this oeuvre, and the alternation between the harpsichord and the very beautiful virginals only enhances the attraction of this disc.
Although I am critical about some features of Glen Wilson's recording I would like to point out that various pieces in his programme come off quite well. The Paduana lachrimae can stand the rather slow tempo. On his disc we find an example of chorale variations which are mostly played at the organ, Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr. Wilson convincingly demonstrates that it fares well at the harpsichord. Not all pieces in his programme are authentic. The Passomeza a 4 Voc. is generally considered spurious. The programme ends with a piece which is definitely not by Sweelinck. It has been preserved anonymously, but is also attributed to Melchior Schildt, one of the many German pupils of Sweelinck. The Fantasia 1. toni à 4 is based on the first line of the German hymn Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. It is a brilliant display of contrapuntal ingenuity, and Wilson gives a commanding performance. It is preceded by a harmonization of this hymn by Lucas Osiander.
The track-lists are quite different in the spelling of the titles of various pieces. I have harmonized them, and used the spelling of the Chandos disc as the standard. That one is also most up-to-date in regard to the catalogue numbers. The SwWV refers to the new catalogue of the Dutch Sweelinck scholar Pieter Dirksen. The reference to this catalogue for the Naxos disc is incomplete, and I have added the missing numbers.
It was a nice gesture by Glen Wilson to dedicate his disc to his teacher Gustav Leonhardt and his wife Marie on the occasion of their 80th birthdays. It is an embarrassment that Naxos wasn't able to print the name of Mrs Leonhardt correctly.
Johan van Veen (© 2011)