musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

Dutch recorder music
Saskia Coolen, recorder, viola da gamba [bc]; Rainer Zipperling, viola da gamba; Patrick Ayrton, harpsichord
concert: April 12, 2016, Zeist, Church of the Community of Moravian Brethren

anon (ed. M. van Bolhuis): Bouphon; Marleburgse Marche; O jammer en ellende; Savoyse kool met Ossevleis; Tut, tut, tut; Saskia COOLEN: Prelude in c minor (improvisation); Prelude in g minor (improvisation); Suite (improvisation); Willem DE FESCH (1687-1760): Sonata III, op. 8,3; Carolus HACQUART (1640-1701): Suite X in a, op. 3,10; Jacobus NOZEMAN (1693-1745): Sonata in e minor, op. 1,3; Johann SCHENCK (1660-1712): Suite in d minor; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Fantasia for viola da gamba solo; Unico Willem VAN WASSENAER (1692-1766): Sonata II in g minor

One of the essential features of historical performance practice is the use of historical instruments or faithful copies of them. It is not unusual that real historical string instruments are played in live concerts but that is not the case with wind instruments. In fact, relatively few wind instruments of the 18th century - let alone older ones - have come down to us in playable condition. It was therefore quite unique that the Dutch recorder player Saskia Coolen presented six different recorders from the early 18th century in a series of concerts across the Netherlands.

At the start of her concert in Zeist she explained that string instruments get better with time but wind instruments deteriorate. That is partly due to not being played for a long time which makes them drying out. This is one of the reasons that relatively few recorders have been preserved, and if so, that they are more often than not unsuited for performances. Another factor is that the recorder became obsolete during the 18th century and there can be little doubt that many instruments have simply been thrown away. One of the recorders Ms Coolen played almost became the victim of this process too. Fortunately it was saved in time and this instrument was one of those played during the concert. Another recorder was found in bits and pieces in a castle moat.

Largely thanks to Frans Brüggen the Netherlands became an important centre of recorder playing in the second half of the 20th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Netherlands were an international centre of recorder making. Some of the best recorder builders lived and worked there, and all the recorders which Saskia Coolen played were by Dutch builders: Willem Beukers, Jan van Heerde and Engelbert Terton. There can be little doubt that the recorder was widely disseminated across music lovers, mostly amateurs from the upper echelons of society. There are a number of books with pieces they might have played. Jacob van Eyck, one of the few professional recorder players of his time, published two books with recorder pieces, mostly variations on popular or religious tunes.

The programme gave some idea of the music which might have been played at the time. The artists confined themselves to music by Dutch composers although music from France, Italy and Germany was certainly played. The music scene was in many ways different from that in other countries. In Germany, for instance, amateurs played music at home or in social gatherings but their repertoire was written by composers who were in the service of a church or a court or a town. That was not the case in the Netherlands. There was no royal court and very few aristocratic courts, and these seldom had their own chapel. Only organists and carillonneurs could find a job in a church or a town. Other musicians were more or less free lance and worked as music teachers or directed a collegium musicum of amateurs.

Music by Dutch composers is usually chamber music or music for a single instrument based on popular tunes or sacred music, for instance the melodies from the Genevan psalter. Ms Coolen presented pieces from a rather obscure collection of such pieces which had been put together by Michiel van Bolhuis, an Amsterdam notary. Many of the melodies included in this collection also appear in other sources but this one is interesting as it proves that popular tunes were played in the homes of people of social standing. Saskia Coolen playedthese pieces on a sopranino recorder which was probably the most common recorder at the time and most suitable for this kind of repertoire. Five of such pieces were put together to a suite which Ms Coolen performed with much flair showing her improvisational skills in the process.

The rest of the programme was more 'serious', as it were. Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer was a member of the aristocracy and has become known as the composer of the Concerti armonici which once were contributed to Pergolesi. Three sonatas for recorder and bc from his pen have been preserved. These pieces are quite good and deserve to be part of the standard repertoire of recorder players. The Sonata II received a fine performance in which the rhythmic pulse came perfectly off. As far as the more sophisticated repertoire is concerned, it is notable that relatively few music was especially written for recorder, probably because the recorder was first and foremost an instrument of amateurs. The two sonatas in the second half of the programme, by Willem de Fesch and Nozeman, were both originally conceived for the violin and especially Nozeman's sonata is technically not that easy and probably beyond the grasp of most amateurs of the time. The scoring for violin doesn't exclude a performance on the recorder; even if it was not specifically indicated composers didn't bother if there music was played on different instruments or even adapted to another instrument. Not every sonata works equally well on every instrument. De Fesch's Sonata III sounded more convincing to my ears than Nozeman's Sonata op. 1,3 which included some effects which I didn't find very natural on the recorder. Even so, it was a very nice work and more or less a kind of show piece as it was the most virtuosic in the programme and it received the best possible performance by Saskia Coolen.

Although the recorder took centre stage, the other instruments could also be heard in a solo role. Rainer Zipperling played two pieces for viola da gamba by two of the most renowned composers for the instrument of the 17th century in whose oeuvre Italian and French elements are represented. Carolus Hacquart was from the southern Netherlands, lived in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and the Hague and was a protegee of Constantijn Huygens. His collection of ten suites for viola da gamba are among the best music written for the instrument. Johann Schenck was born from German parents in Amsterdam and composed some music for the town's theatre. He later worked in Düsseldorf and his collections of gamba music include pieces of considerable virtuosity. Zipperling delivered excellent performances, and in particular the Suite in d minor was given an engaging and brilliant interpretation, with clearly marked rhythms and some nice expression in the slow movements. He also presented a fantasia for viola da gamba solo by Telemann, from a collection of twelve which until recently was thought to be lost but has been rediscovered. That is certainly a major addition to the gamba repertoire.

Saskia Coolen had presented some of the recorders in short improvisations before playing the written-out pieces. This gave Patrick Ayrton the idea of improvising a suite in French style on the harpsichord. He asked the audience which key he should use and which kind of dances he should play. The result was quite nice and admirably in accordance with the style of the time. It ended with a passacaille which reminded me of Louis Couperin.

This concert was one of the most uncommon I have heard for a long time. It is not often that original recorders of the 17th or 18th century are used in recordings and even less often they are played in public. Saskia Coolen deserves praise for doing that and for the way she presented them to the audience, by short introductions and improviations on some of them. She was accompanied by congenial partners in an compelling programme. Hopefully they will further explore the repertoire played on these precious recorders.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Concert reviews