Sweelinck: The complete Keyboard Works

Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, Harry van der Kamp
442:00 (6 CDs in a cardboard box)
Glossa GCD 922410

These six CDs of keyboard music form the fourth part of a monumental undertaking to record all of Sweelinck’s surviving works – 23 CDs in all. The whole project, entitled ‘The Sweelinck Monument’, is organised by Harry van der Kamp whose Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam has already recorded all the vocal music. Four members of that Consort appear on these keyboard music CDs to sing the secular songs and Lutheran chorale melodies before the sets of variations based on them; oddly the same is not done with the Calvinist psalms in Dutch. Apart from one fugal track which goes a bit awry, the singing is good and it is useful to be reminded of the tune before each of the many variation sets.

A total of ten keyboard players are involved – eleven if one counts a couple of tracks recorded by the late Gustav Leonhardt in 1971, added at the end to make up for the fact that his death in 2012 deprived the project of his intended contribution. All of the music, apart from Leonhardt’s two tracks, has been recorded on original instruments from Sweelinck’s time, a total of seven organs and five string keyboard instruments. These include some of The Netherlands’ finest old organs (Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk, Alkmaar, Kantens and Leiden) as well as three in Germany (Lemgo, Osteel and Uttum). Harpsichords and Virginals are all by members of the Ruckers family, apart from an Artus Gheerdinck virginal of 1605 and the modern Ruckers copy on which Leonhart plays. All instruments are matched effectively to the repertoire performed on them. The opening Fantasia  SWWV 273 (coincidentally on the B.A.C.H. theme) played by Bernard Winsemius on the brash swallow-nest organ at Lemgo, is one highlight, as are the challenging Fantasia Crommatica  SWWV 258 played by Pieter-Jan Belder on a Iohannes Ruckers harpsichord of 1639, and Bob van Asperen’s Toccata  SWWV 282 on the same instrument.

Too much to detail here, all of the playing is of a high standard and is impeccably recorded. There is an inevitable sense of setting down definitive versions of these works, rather than indulging too much in flights of fancy, though these do at times emerge. The whole project is as much a tribute to the Netherlands modern early music movement which has spawned so many fine keyboard players and sponsored the restoration of old instruments, as it is to Sweelinck. The players include Pieter Dirksen, whose editions of Sweelinck are used, and van Asperen who contributes seven tracks delivered with his customary panache. It is interesting to compare the latter’s performance of Sweelinck’s version of Dowland’s Pavana Lachrymae  with that recorded over forty years ago by Leonhardt: the latter is much slower (6½ minutes as opposed to van Asperen’s 5) and, while typically magisterial, tends to lose connectedness over long-drawn-out phrases. Leonhardt’s other contribution, the Esce Mars  variations, are also recorded here by Marieke Spaans: there is less difference, with Spaans’ version slightly faster and a bit less reserved than Leonhardt’s. It is certainly good to have two versions of these well-known pieces.

What comes through very clearly is how inventive Sweelinck was. There is a marvellous diversity of imitations and figurations in the many variations on psalm melodies and secular tunes played here. He never continues the same figuration for too long so that player and listener do not get bored. The influence of English virginal music is clear, with the sort of figuration used by John Bull always in the background. A set of variations on De lustelijcke mey  by Bull is played here by Pieter Dirksen as a substitute for Sweelinck’s improvised set which has not survived. There is also a fantasia by Bull on a theme by Sweelinck and various other tributes and re-workings which emphasise the closeness of the circle which included Bull, Dowland and Philips. As well as variation sets there are toccatas in Italian, mainly Venetian, style and a number of very substantial Fantasias which show Sweelinck’s, and these organists’, ability to spin out material over time-spans up to 12 minutes. There is a very informative booklet, though a double numbering system used for the individual CDs is confusing. Altogether this is a fitting monument to a great composer.

Noel O’Regan

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