This admirable set of three CDs containing all the known and extant secular vocal works of the under-appreciated Renaissance Dutch composer, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), is released under the rubric of "The Sweelinck Monument". In the informative booklet that comes with the CDs Harry van der Kamp, director of (and bass in) the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, explains how various Dutch authorities have tried three times in the past century and a half or so to erect a physical monument to the composer. For one reason or another, these attempts have come to nothing. So for this enterprise van der Kamp returned to primary sources; he arranged and prepared (new) performing editions with the help of (material from) Annette Verhoeven, editor of Sweelinck's secular vocal works. Where necessary, the bass line in particular has been transposed; A' has been set to 440Hz; the Old French pronunciation follows the style in Bele buche e bele parleure (Jeannine Alton and Brian Jeffery).
We most often associate Sweelinck with keyboard music. Indeed, the complete keyboard works (on NM Classics 92119) were very well received on ClassicalNet a couple of years ago. In fact, Sweelinck's career as performer (almost entirely in Amsterdam) was full of successes, approbation and celebrity. He seems almost to have been able to choose his employers; his salary was regularly increased; his patrons supported his work and obviously cheerfully facilitated what little travel to other musical centers Sweelinck undertook – including, like Bach a hundred years later, to offer his expertise in organ building and maintenance. The current catalog of available keyboard recordings far outnumbers that of Sweelinck's actually greater output of vocal music. We can be sure that in the composer's lifetime, the situation was the reverse: his organ and harpsichord music was less well known than his vocal works.
If these weren't reasons enough for this set of CDs, then the quality of the compositions and of all the performances is. The total of 70 works presented here (many more have been lost) shows a great depth, breadth and variety of imagination and expression. The works are as characterful as any similar music of the period. They fall into six collections: the Chansons, to French words; Madrigals, from Italian sources; Italian Rimes; French Rimes; Canons; and works for lute. Nothing in Dutch survives. All these are to be found on these three CDs; as are their texts and translations in the respective originals, English, German, French and Italian.
For anyone used to Italian madrigals and French chansons of the period, Sweelinck's restrained and slightly cooler approach will come as a refreshing contrast. Although the passion and ardor of the texts are there, the drama, modulation and chromaticism of the Latin style is almost lacking in favor of a more polyphonic construction. The texts are by a variety of poets, nearly half of whom are unknown. The Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, whose singers have a bias towards the lower register (only two sopranos to an alto, two tenors, two basses), has a style which suits the music admirably. It's clean, bright, vivacious and articulated in such a way that every bar is clear. For all that the musical flavor of Sweelinck's northern Dutch lacks the heat and shade of the better known Renaissance chanson, it is full of spice and piquancy. These characteristics add immensely to the reception which we accord it when paying attention to the development of musical and verbal lines – as opposed to being swept away by the whole palette of sound. Listen to the care, the precision and intricacy of Bouche de Coral (1) [CD.1 tr.8], for example. The paradox and tension of desire sublimated are conveyed with never a hint at hyperbole. The overwhelming impression that's made is one of tremendous integrity within the idiom of the highly figurative and finely worked language.
There were other Dutch madrigals, of course. The collections composed by Lassus are the most celebrated. Sweelinck's hold their own against those of Marenzio, Ferrabosco and their contemporaries. He was clearly fully aware of the idiom before the more extreme chromaticism of the Baroque changed the form for ever. Such madrigals as Chi vuol veder [CD.2 tr.1] are shot through with tension, an almost abrasive word painting and highly colorful turns of phrase. There is also joy in this area of Sweelinck's work… Hor che soave l'aura [CD.2 tr.18]. It's clear that some of these works were written for specific occasions and/or to commissions, though most were published in others' collections. Again, the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam has a completely solid, yet appropriately light-handed hold on the works: each one delights in new ways.
The Rimes in both Italian (which are largely to unknown poets' work) and French (the texts are by Philippe Desportes, who lived from 1546 to 1605 and was thus a contemporary of Sweelinck) seem to have been items which the composer considered almost as "diversions" to the weightier sacred works. They are in two and three voices. And, although it has been speculated that Sweelinck wrote these for teaching purposes, they are every bit as substantial and worthy of close attention as the rest of the music in this collection. Once more, the performers throw their all into conveying the essence of the words and music, which is melodious, original and full of originality. Although Sweelinck intended to suggest a lighter flavor for the Rimes, there is nothing slight about them. The blend of enthusiasm with passion tempered by a dignified gentility, as befits the genre, advocates powerfully for this neglected corpus of work.
There is a penetrating and precise clarity to the singing of the Ensemble. Listen to their articulation in Garrula rondinella [CD.2 tr.2], for example. Like weaving their way through a thicket of thorns. Their confidence could not be greater. Their sense of involvement never once falters. Yet they sing with a sensitivity to the style and substance of the Rimes which is both consistent and fresh. Technically, their mixture of svelte turns and slides, jumps and concentrations is matched by a sweetness of tone and articulation that aptly matches the shine and enthusiasm of the texts. Oddly, the final track on the third CD fades away.
As a collection worth investigating in its own right, these three CDs have much to recommend them. A style of delivery and engagement with Sweelinck's overlooked vocal work is supported by a transparent acoustic. To gain insight into a side of the composer which we rarely see, yet which was central to his musical world, and to do so in the hands of performers so obviously at one with the music make this release from Glossa to be especially prized. One or two of the usual online retailers currently have this set available for significantly less than its rather high list price. In any case, enthusiasts of Renaissance secular vocal music from what is now a slightly unusual angle will not be disappointed.
Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey