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Concert reviews

"The Orpheus of Amsterdam": Sweelinck, Scheidt
Cappella Figuralis/Jos van Veldhoven
concert: Utrecht, Nov 19, 2003

S Scheidt: Canzon 'O Nachbar Roland'; Canzon 'Windeken daer het bosch af drilt'; Currant in G; Galiard Battaglia a 5; Intrada a 5; Laudate Dominum; Lobet den Herren alle Heiden; Miserere nei Deus; Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz; JP Sweelinck: Beati pauperes; Magnificat anima mea; Pseaume 23 (Mon Dieu me paist sous sa puissance haute); Pseaume 110 (Le Toutpuissant à mon Seigneur et maistre); Pseaume 149 (Chantez à Dieu chanson nouvelle); Pseaume 150 (Or soit loué l'Eternel); Windeken daer het bosch af drilt

Irmela Brünger, Marjon strijk, soprano; Peter de Groot, alto; Stefan Berghammer, Immo Schröder, tenor; Michiel Meijer, bass; Antoinette Lohmann, Pieter Affourtit, violin; Mieneke van der Velden, Johannes Boer, Joshua Cheatham, viola da gamba; Christian Staude, double bass; Fred Jacobs, theorbo; Siebe Henstra, harpsichord; Pieter Dirksen, organ

The title of this concert refers to one of the two composers whose works were performed: Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. Although he composed quite a lot of vocal music, his reputation nowadays stems from his keyboard compositions. That was't very different in his own time: he was much sought after as an organ teacher, in particular by German organists. The other composer in the programme, Samuel Scheidt, was one of those Germans who went to Amsterdam to become a pupil of the deutsche Organistenmacher, as Sweelinck was called in Germany.
Although Sweelinck only once left the Republic of the United Provinces - and then he only went to Antwerp - he was very well aware of the musical developments elsewhere in Europe. In his keyboard music he was influenced both by the English virginalists as by the Italian keyboard composer Girolamo Frescobaldi.
There are also foreign influences in his vocal music. He composed a number of Italian madrigals and some French chansons. In his sacred music he incorporated the Italian and French styles as well.
His output of sacred music contains of two genres. On the one hand he published four books of Psalm settings on French texts, on the other hand he composed a number of motets on Latin texts, published as Cantiones Sacrae in Antwerp in 1619.

There are some special features in these two kinds of works.
His Cantiones Sacrae are written for 5 voices with basso continuo. This demonstrates that, although Sweelinck can be considered one of the last great representatives of the classical polyphony of the Franco-Flemish school, the prima prattica, he was aware of the development of the seconda prattica in Italy, one of whose features was the use of the basso continuo. The relationship between text and music is also much narrower in these motets than in the motets of previous generations of composers of polyphony.
Another characteristic of these motets is the fact that some of their texts are exclusively associated to the Roman Catholic liturgy. This has given food to the speculation that Sweelinck, although serving in Amsterdam, which was predominantly protestant, he was still a Roman Catholic by heart. There is no firm evidence of that, though.
This assumption seems to be contradicted by his compostion of Psalms on French texts. He made use of the French rhymed version, written by the protestant poets Marot and De Bèze. The fact that he didn't use one of the Dutch rhymed versions can't be used - as musicologist Pieter Dirksen did in his programme notes - as evidence of a distance between Sweelinck and the calvinists. In the protestant church of his days no polyphony was used, and as a result composing polyphonic settings on a Dutch text wouldn't make much sense. These settings were intended to be performed during meetings of the Dutch - and in particular Amsterdam - aristocracy. And they were educated in speaking French.

If these Psalm settings are performed in our time, then mostly by a choir. But considering their purpose that is hardly appropriate. These compositions are 'chamber music', as the programme notes rightly stated. This means that a performance with one voice per part is the best way to do them justice. In the renaissance it was very usual to add instruments, either to play colla parte or as a substitute for one or more of the singers.
In the case of the Cantiones Sacrae a performance with more than one voice per part is not out of the question. The fact that their texts are in Latin makes them appropriate to be used outside the Republic - for example in the Southern Netherlands - where Roman Catholics could celebrate their services in the open.

Jos van Veldhoven had made a selection from the four books with Psalms and the Cantiones Sacrae. The decision to perform these works with one voice per part and to use violins and viole da gamba was a considerable step forward into the direction of a 'historically correct' performance. But the effect was undone to some extent by the fact that the concert took place in the Jacobikerk. Because of its large reverberation it was not the most suitable venue to sing this vocal 'chamber music'. Some of the details got lost in the huge space of the church.
But the interpretation itself was excellent. The madrigalisms, used to illustrate the text, came across much more clearly and convincingly than in a choral performance. Some effects, like the illustration of the instruments in the setting of Psalm 150, tend to sound exaggerated in a choral performance, but here everything was just right. The use of violins contributed considerably to the expression of the text.
As has been said before, the Cantiones Sacrae are tending towards the seconda prattica, both in the use of the basso continuo and in the relationship between text and music. These pieces were equally well performed, with a beautiful overall sound of the ensemble and a good realisation of the text.

The other composer on the programme was Sweelinck's organ pupil Samuel Scheidt. Like Sweelinck he is mainly known for his keyboard works. But he also composed a huge amount of sacred vocal music and a number of instrumental works. Bot categories were represented in the programme.
In his vocal music Scheidt - like all German composers, until the time of Bach - did stick to the polyphonic tradition, but also incorporated the Italian concertato principle, both in the use of instruments and the composition of pieces in the monodic style.
Whereas Sweelinck only a couple of times made use of the cori spezzati technique - like in the above-mentioned setting of Psalm 150 -, Scheidt more frequently wrote pieces for two groups of voices and instruments, for example in his own setting of Psalm 150, Laudate Dominum. In this works the voices and concertante instruments illustrate the text. Therefore the use of the harpsichord to emphasize the line "laudate eum in tympano" was a little superfluous and just too predictable. A completely different work was the harmonically striking setting of Miserere mei Deus. The concert ended with the jubilant Lobet den Herren, alle Heiden with a continuous alternation of soli and tutti.

The Jacobikerk wasn't the most suitable venue to perform Sweelinck's sacred music. But in Scheidt's vocal works the reverberation of the church worked wonderfully well. That certainly doesn't apply to the instrumental pieces by Scheidt, played between the vocal items. They all came from the collection Ludorum musicorum prima pars, published in Hamburg in 1621. A lot of details got lost, in particular in some fast and florid passages. The choice of the Intrada a 5 was particularly unlucky, since - as it was stated in the programme notes - it was very likely intended to be played outdoors, by wind instruments. Then why was it performed in a church with violins and viole da gamba?

On the whole this was a very fine concert. It is just a shame that not enough thought has been given to the relationship between music and space.

Finally I would like to say something about the programme notes.
As informative as they were, there was too much speculation - or should I say 'wishful thinking'? - in it. The assumption that Sweelinck 'of course' didn't like the orthodox wing of the reformed church is nothing but speculation. And to claim Sweelinck was a 'liberal' in his religious thinking is without any foundation. We simply don't know whether he was Reformed by heart or still a Roman Catholic or something else. There is very little information about Sweelinck - as Pieter Dirksen in his programme notes rightly states -, and that is something we have to live with.
Of course, everyone is entitled to his opinions, but I think that a characterisation of calvinists as 'fanatics' is not very appropriate in a commentary to a concert programme.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

Concert reviews