Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) is another of those very great composers whose reputation while they lived was fittingly high, whose accomplishments are stunning; yet who is surely due for a revival in appreciation now having been sadly eclipsed. Sweelinck led a modest life, arriving in Amsterdam and taking up the post of organist at the Old Church in his teens and remaining there until his death. In accordance with Calvinist principles, there was no organ music during church services, but before and afterwards, and on weekday evenings. Sweelinck was thus freeer to work with organs locally as Bach was later to do, teach (Scheidt was a pupil) and compose. His compositions fall into two distinct corpuses: keyboard and choral. The latter can be divided too: largely secular vocal works (chansons, madrigals) for collegia musica (local burghers meeting as amateurs for an evening of music-making) and sacred Psalm and Biblical texts set – in many cases also for amateur and domestic performance.
So the reaction of anyone unfamiliar with the breadth of Sweelinck's work may well be one of surprise. At first. Then pure delight. This volume is the third apparently of three, in a series by N M Classics, which is the joint label of the Radio Nederland Transcription Service and CNM Centre Netherlands Music. It may be a little hard to obtain and potentially lonely as well, since the other two in the series seem to be vanishing from one supplier and appearing elsewhere as one chases them. But do chase them: they will not fail to please – thanks to the music's variety, profundity and to the expert performances of the Netherlands Chamber Choir under Paul van Nevel. Despite running only to a rather ungenerous 53½ minutes, this CD can be wholeheartedly recommended.
Of the dozen pieces on the CD four have Latin texts, three Italian, one French, one German and three are Psalm settings. None is much longer than seven minutes yet Sweelinck captures, wrings and exposes a world in most of these offerings: none is miniature. It's somewhat understated, gentle, reflective music – of great depth and panache. And those are the notes which the Netherlands Chamber Choir strikes throughout. They are singing to the fully-developed logic of music which is either palpably of a genre and fully in command of (and at times expanding, exploiting) its conventions, such as the motet, O Domine Jesu Christe. Or they are sui generis, such as Yeux qui guidez mon ame. That Sweelinck, quietly following the routines of a northern European parish church, should have been able to draw on the references and nuances of material like this is a wonder. And Van Nevel and his singers convey that wonder without any kind of undue adulation. By clarity, forward movement, beautiful articulation of the words, they let the music speak for itself.
The comprehensive and highly-informative CD liner notes suggest a couple of reasons why Sweelinck chose to set texts from a variety of European languages: they gave the composer exposure to (the cultures of) those countries outside his native Netherlands; the Dutch language was still evolving, there being no accepted models for setting it; Latin was the lingua franca of seventeenth century and Sweelinck strove in a rather unassuming way to hold his place in mainstream culture. This meant, interestingly, that some of the music on the present disc was intended for Catholic services. This goes some way towards re-inforcing the belief that (especially since his marriage was not recorded by his Calvinist church and his son, Dirk, was accused of having Catholic sympathies) Sweelinck too kept firm to the same Catholic beliefs as we know his father held. And, by implication, perhaps, that his employers (and indeed the wider Amsterdam authorities) were more tolerant than one might have expected.
The music on this superb CD is not particularly polyphonic. Sweelinck's aim was anyway to give to each voice musical material of equal importance and joy; and to make a virtue of simplicity – on the surface Calvinist austerity. In some ways, although the variations on 'Mein junges Leben' (tr. 11) make use of a soprano solo (Barbara Borden), the Netherlands Chamber Choir does sing very much as one choir, which is to the good. It confers a clean, pure and purposeful quality on the performance. Sweelinck's choral output is obviously a repertoire which they and the quartet of instrumentalists know well and love. The recording is sonorous, spacious and the selection of items in this volume made all the more pleasing for its variety and pacing.
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey