Complete recordings of works – even by composers of Sweelinck's caliber – are always a bit of a gamble… lack of variety, narrowness of interpretation, restricted range of experience can all cloud what seems like a good idea at the time. Those reservations can safely be swept away where this wonderful nine-CD set of Sweelinck's complete keyboard works played by fifteen experts is concerned. It may be a little hard to track down but 2007 is promised by NM classics (the joint label of the Radio Nederland Transcription Service and CNM Centre Netherlands Music) to be the year when this prized set comes back into the catalog; it has existed in one form or another for a number of years; now, wherever you see it, buy this set! Although there are single disc anthologies of various of Sweelinck's organ and harpsichord works, nothing to compare with the authority, comprehensiveness and mixture of majesty and sheer musical competence combined with interpretive understanding of the composer's subtleties, power and beauty exists now or seems likely to be released. This is the one!
In fact this NM Classics release is the first complete set of recordings of Sweelinck's keyboard music. None of the composer's original manuscripts survives; indeed most of the copies date from after his death; the three dozen or so in circulation for the first fifty years after then are of unequal quality and reliability. The watershed in the twentieth century was Pieter Dirksen's The Keyboard Music of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, from which the accepted canon for the present issue was taken. Even it includes some works 'probably' by Sweelinck, but which lack final authentication.
We know that Sweelinck bought a Ruckers harpsichord in Antwerp for the Amsterdam authorities; indeed that is thought to be the only time Sweelinck left his home country. And that he played the Hendrik Niehoff organ in the Oude Kerk there. Two original Ruckers and a modern copy were used for the harpsichord performances on this set. The organs are all sixteenth and seventeenth century originals – from The Netherlands, and Belgium, Germany, Austria and Italy. Where appropriate, works probably meant for one instrument have also been included played on the other, and even lute pieces are included here when it was known that they were likely to have been played on harpsichord and/or organ.
We know next to nothing about the circumstances of the composition of Sweelinck's keyboard works. There is debate about when they were written: as material for the many students with whom Sweelinck was able to work (thanks to a somewhat less than onerous position as organist at Amsterdam's Oude Kerk from the late 1570s until his death over 40 years later) perhaps? Yet the latest research suggests that the bulk of the almost seventy glorious pieces was actually written in the last fifteen years of his life, in a very productive period from 1605. Sweelinck apparently never published them as he did his vocal works. So are they minor, lesser works in some way? Not a bit of it! That much is evident from the moment you hear the first track of the first CD – and even before you read Gustav Leonhardt's words in his introduction, "… this great figure is a source of…fascination: In not a single contemporary (with the possible exception of Frescobaldi) do we encounter, among all his astonishing diversity, such wonderful eloquence – an organic eloquence which has gained a place for the great fantasias in particular among the Masterworks of music history".
After the sheer beauty, vitality and subtlety of the repertoire offered on this outstanding set of nine CDs, perhaps the next thing to strike a listener, especially one unfamiliar with the music, is its variety: piece after piece… many tempi, different tonalities, fresh color, new themes, a treasury of timbres. To listen to any one (or more!) of the CDs is like being taken through the back streets, canals and broad avenues of Amsterdam: something exciting and thought-provoking at every corner, bridge, crossing and square. Since fifteen different soloists – albeit mostly Dutch – are represented here, there might have been a danger of a loss of focus in the interpretive strength and 'message'. Not so. The multiplicity is a big plus: they all know Sweelinck's work so well and are at pains to convey its essence in every splendid detail that the overall feel for and tenor of the music is never lost or muddied. At the same time their own interpretive strengths are allowed to illuminate the music.
In style Sweelinck's keyboard music is varied and shows multiple influences. The presence, for example, of the English exiles John Bull and Peter Philips in the Southern Netherlands during Sweelinck's formative and productive years, added the same highly imaginative style of figuration to his idiom as is so prominent in the English school general, and Byrd in particular. Indeed a work inspired by Dowland's Lachrymae is one of the surprises here. Typical of his style, Sweelinck effects a tighter balance than Byrd, say, between melodic and passage work. Sweelinck's use of polyphony, 'adaptation' almost from the vocal to the keyboard ambits, is particularly noteworthy: strict and playable with two hands; yet highly inventive. He also melded forms: fantasias include toccata-like material and vice-versa.
Every bit as central to Sweelinck's style is variation: there are contemporary accounts of extensive improvisations by Sweelinck the performer: variation after variation followed – each different from, built upon, or contrasted with the others – to the amazement of listeners. Nor does he rely on superfluous ornamentation. Even casual listening reveals degrees of fundamental creativity so great as to assure Sweelinck's inclusion amongst the very greatest of composers.
By and large Sweelinck's sacred works were composed for the organ, his secular ones for the harpsichord. He is one of the first composers to draw that distinction between the two keyboard instruments that we now take almost from granted, despite being equally at home as a performer with both. Notwithstanding his adherence (secretly?) to Catholicism, the majority of his sacred variations for organ were based on the Genevan Psalter. There are often pairs of compositions – similar in style but dissimilar in form. Pairing is a characteristic of Sweelinck that has yet fully to be explored and appreciated. Maybe the cornucopia of this set of discs will help.
While the fantasia and variation forms were well-established in Sweelinck's time in The Netherlands, the toccata was alien: he virtually 'imported' it from Venice and added a measure of English passage work and, accentuating the polyphony, even composed strict three-part toccatas. Unique. Equally noteworthy are the examples of three-section toccatas, with a central fugue.
We should also note that the otherwise ubiquitous fantasia has special and specific connotations; they place Sweelinck squarely in the late Renaissance humanist tradition. Drawing on Greek thought, the concept of the fantasia was that of creation at a high abstract level, the greatest to which the individual creator could aspire. As instrumental music grew in stature in the sixteenth century, so more became to expected of the composer of such works as these. The twenty surviving examples from his oeuvre are at the core of it, and in many ways represent its zenith. Not only do they make innovative use of the broad spectrum of techniques from counterpoint to dance, from artfulness to lucidity. They also stand in their own right for their beauty and expressiveness. Particularly popular at the time and never quite so simple as they seem, Sweelinck's echo fantasias usually conceal such features as canons, fugues and similar refinements. It's not uncommon for there to exist pairs again – one for the harpsichord and one for the organ. His mono-thematic fantasias, on the other hand, are generally based on themes already existing and/or which Sweelinck borrowed. There is even a fantasia on B.A.C.H.
Something must be said of the accompanying book: a (small) hardback by Dirksen of over 200 pages in Dutch, English, French, German and Spanish even with its own thin silk bookmark not only makes an excellent introduction to the music contained on the CDs and to Sweelinck, but also covers in meticulous detail the backgrounds to the works themselves, their style, history, historical precedents; the performers; the instruments, locations and various Sweelinck associations. It's excellently indexed and contains appropriate illustrations and photographs.
There isn't a weak performance among them. Different in style they certainly are. But each of the 15 maestri who undertook this mammoth task has more than lived up to it. As you become familiar with their approaches, you might just find yourself wishing that organist 'A' instead of 'B' had been able to perform fantasia 'N'. But to wish for that is surely to take a more than just advantage of the richness on offer. The musical backgrounds of these experts are sufficiently varied and deep that they have elicited from the music itself which common features are to be emphasized and which overlooked. Significantly, there are no weak moments. None. If you're new to this repertoire (and who is likely to know it all, intimately?), this will be an eye-opener. If this is familiar ground, here is a set of such beauty and breadth – and of such importance in terms of late Renaissance keyboard music – that it can hardly be overlooked. This set of all of Sweelinck's keyboard works played with panache, dedication, depth and joy by all its interpreters throughout can be unhesitatingly recommended.
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey