Sweelinck and Gibbons

W.A. Grieve Smith

[November 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:1.]

Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck (1562-l621), ’Mejster Jan,’ The Orpheus of Amsterdam

SWEELINCK: Cantiones Sacrae (1619). Trinity College Chapel Choir, Cambridge (Richard Marlow) Hyperion CDA67103/4 (1998) Cf: Etcetera KTC 2025 (1998,) Choir of Clare College, Cambridge (Timothy Brown)

It’s a double irony that two new recordings of Sweelinck’s vocal music are on offer at the same time. From the Netherlands’ greatest keyboard virtuoso/composer! And the keyboard CDs are rather spotty at that. Sweelink succeeded his father and spent his entire career as municipal organist at the Cathedral of St Nicholas in Amsterdam, now known as the Oude Kerk. Scholars have not conveyed to us whether the authorities invoked the Sanity Clause in re-naming the church. “Everybody knows there ain’t no Sanity Clause!”

In Holland even today the church authorities do not hire the organists — or even own the organs. They belong to the Town Council It was somewhat academic because there was no separation between church and state. Sweelinck also trained a whole fistful of the leading organists of northern Germany: Hambraeus in Koenigsberg, Samuel Scheidt in Halle, Gustav Dueben in Stockholm, Heinrich Scheidemann and Jacob Praetorius II in Hamburg. The CD annotators spill much ink about why a composer at a Calvinist church would set Latin texts. They seem to miss that it was quite common to sing motets in Latin in German Lutheran services. Composers from Michael Praetorius to Schütz and Buxtehude all wrote music to Latin texts, particularly for chapels in university towns and courts where Latin was still the language of learning.

Anyhow, Sweelinck’s Cantiones, with their lively blend of austere polyphony with Eyetalian, madrigalian verve and bounce would be a refreshing relief from the more Teutonic music available to Lutheran musicians. And Sweelinck’s pupils far and wide could provide a successful market for the printed music.

The Trinitarians under Marlow thrillingly exploit the dramatic possibilities in the music, again ably recorded by Antony Howell and Julian Millard. Alas, the same can’t be said for the Clare collegians. They sound more like your average college glee club bravely trying to stay together and on pitch. If the Hyperion CDs were not available the comparisons would not be so negative.

SWEELINCK: Pseaumes de DavidThe Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (Marlow) Conifer Classics 74321-16850-2 (1991)

Here the Trinitians tackle French psalms Sweelinck published for the Genevan Calvinists.

They sing 15 psalm settings out of the 153 printed. And with the same precision and vitality they bring to the Latin motets.

Note to the wise: Since Conifer is part of BMG, you might want to scoop up this CD before some corporateers at Bertelsmann decide to nuke older and slower-moving items. Saves having to haunt yard sales. This also applies to the following, since Deutsche Harmonia Mundi is at least distributed by, if not owned by the BMGers. Bertoldsmaenner?

SWEELINCK: Orgelwerke Gustav Leonhardt, Metzler organ at St Jakobskerk, Den Haag Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77148-2-RG (1972)

Don’t let the picture credits fool you — they lie. The pictures are of the Riepp organ in Ottobueren, including Leonhardt at the console in Ottobueren, not The Hague. Even though this is an analogue tape originally available on a BASF LP, the sound quality and performance are quite respectable. Oskar Metzler und Sohn of Dietekon, Schweitz seem to specialize in building modern reproductions of historic German organs of the Schnitger/Silbermann schools. Here Leonhardt offers 3 fantasies, 1 toccata and 2 chorale variations — representative samples of Sweelinck’s keyboard compositions. Ironically, never published, but copied and spread by his numerous students. Sweelinck combines the kind of relentless polyphony you find in The Art of Fugue with Elizabethan virtuosity you find in works by Dr John Bull and Peter Philips both English refugee organists in nearby Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands.

In the dead days of LP Ton Koopman sight-read all the extant organ and harpsichord works on 4 platters on the Teldec Das Alte Werk series — never showed up on CD. Lets hope that Ted Perry or Jared Sacks can be persuaded to have some young, enterprising Nederlander give Sweelinck’s Keyboard works their due.

SWEELINCK: Organ Works James David Christie (C.B. Fisk organ, Wellesley College) Naxos 8.550904 (1993)

On this rather snarky little organ Christie gives us 5 keyboard works based on secular songs. This is quite legitimate. In the 16th and early 17th Centuries there were no assignments to an organ or a harpsichord or spinet — any keyboard would do. Both organs and harpsichords were present in churches and in the wealthier homes and palaces. He also gives us 2 toccata and the famous Echo Fantasia in A Minor. For $7, why not sample Sweelinck?

SWEELINCK: Organ Works Jacques van Oortmerssen, organ of St Janskerk, Schiedam Denon 38C37-7024 (1978)

This guy may just be a goner, unless Nippon Columbia decides to re-release it on some super budget edition. I’m pretty sure it’s one of the early 14-bit digitals, and it’s one of the hoariest CDs in my collection. Can’t tell you much because , except for the organ specs, the entire booklet is in Japanese! It’s nevertheless a gorgeous Renaissance organ, possibly restored by Juergen Ahrend. Ahrent built a similar-looking organ for Toulouse. And the recording was possibly engineered by Peter Willemoes who recorded many early Denon discs. I just don’t recognize Peter’s name in Kanji! If it does turn up in a cutout bin or yard sale, I heartily recommend latching onto it.

SWEELINCK & SCHEIDT: Oeuvres pour orgue Aude Heurtematte, Ahrend organ, Musee des Augustins, Toulouse Studio SM 12 20.80 (1991)

You want reverb? How about 12 seconds worth? Mdlle Heurtematte gives us half Sweelinck organ/harpsichord works and half by his outstanding pupil, Samuel Scheidt. Scheidt was every bit as skilled and melodious as his teacher. And the Ahrend organ is a gem. Too bad the recordists couldn’t get a bit closer with the mics.

SWEELINCK: Psaumes et Chorals Freddy Eichelberger, Lesselier organ (1627), Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville Temperaments TEM 316006 (1995)

This restored organ by the English builder, William Lesley, has mean-tone temperament with its pure thirds and original pitch of A 396.3 Hz. And the Ensemble Sagittarius sings the chorales in period French, sometimes singing the Cantus along with the organ. A moving glimpse of sacred music making.

Here’s hoping this brief overview will whet your appetite to sample the delights of one of the High Renaissance’s most appealing composers.

Yet more on Orlando Gibbons

GIBBONS: Royal Fantasies. Music for Viols, Volume 1 Concordia (Mark Levy) Metronome METCD 1033 (1998)

Simon Heighes, on p. 72 of the October, 2000 issue of The International Record Review, makes my job a snap. Why not steal from the best, or at least from my betters?

“… nothing short of revelatory. Gibbons emerges here as a composer of far greater subtlety of imagination than hitherto imagined. Concordia’s style of playing is less obviously public than Fretwork’s: it’s intense and sinewy, with a real mission to explore the music’s linear logic and the underlying and often changing character of each piece. Mark Levy’s way with the treble viol is almost to make it speak, so colorfully modulated and rhythmically supple are his melodic lines.”

My sentiments exactly. Mind you, I frankly despise the winner-loser, horserace mentality about choosing among recorded performances. As if there were only a single worthy interpretation! I supposed if you’re pinched for cash you might want to pick the most praiseworthy version. I’m probably as pinched for cash as any other senior, but I revel in comparing divergent CD expressions.

As a side issue, I want to commend Dr Barbara Schwendowius, the producer with Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Koln (WDR) for co-sponsoring yet another recording of outstanding early music. Dr Schwendowius was a producer with DG’s Archiv division that brought us the first period instrument version of Schutz’s Psalmen Davids with the Regensberger Domspatzen. And the still unequalled recording of Buxtehude cantatas on Erato by Ton Koopman et al.

But back to Concordia’s Gibbons: in the most perceptive booklet notes I’ve seen in many a day, Mark Levy points out that, when Italian madrigals first arrived in England, musicians eagerly started playing this new music without the words! Even though this was the most word-dependent new form, the English went their own jolly way playing the tunes! Who could understand this Eyetalian gibberish anyhow, wot?

Part of the job of any competent organist was to improvise on a plainsong or chorale melody, complete with embellishments and variations. And often, when the choir was unavailable or understaffed or simply not up to the job, to plug liturgical holes with transcriptions (intabulations) of suitable vocal works. Frequently played directly from the vocal scores, since paper was not the disposable commodity it is nowadays. Heinrich Scheidemann left us a number of very satisfying organ intabulations he played at Hamburg’s Katerinenkirche.

Here we have the direct ancestor of the Bach-Busoni piano transcriptions, not to mention the infamous Bach-Stokowski orchestral monsters. Frankly, my introduction to much of Bach’s organ music came originally via Stoky. Texas organists had neither the organs nor the chops to tackle Herr Bach. Legend has it that Stokowski simply pencilled in his indications of orchestral instruments on the printed organ score. And then handed it over to Lucien Caillet, Philadelphia’s librarian, to pony up the appropiate instrumental parts. And the swooping, coloristic shifts were very much in the Romantic organ style of playing Bach.

Stoki hit New york in 1907 as organist at St Bartholomew’s, I believe in a predecessor building to the present Byzantine structure on Park Avenue. Stoki apparently felt, probably correctly, that Americans would not respect a Brit named Leo Stokes, from the Royal College of Music. A true artiste would have a more Mitteleuropasche background. One of Stoki’s wives was a pianist named Elsie Hickenlooper, from Kansas City. But subsequently for many years at Juilliard the revered Olga Samaroff Stokowski! Honest.

Returning to Concordia’s Mark Levy: he not only gives us the usual biographic and historic data, but even ventures into the murky area of defining quality. Just what is it that transforms a string of notes into Art? And how do you know it when it bites you in the leg? Says Levy:

“Gibbons, likeBach, is a high priest of the sensual mathematics of counterpoint. He knows not just how to write fine imitative polyphony — most organists and choirmasters of the time could do that — but crucially, how to shape it into a language in which logic and emotion are perfectly united. This is the effect one experiences at the conclusion of the In Nomine a 5 No. 2, as the galloping lines arch their way to a close with a quite tangible inevitability, invariably followed in concert performance by one of those lovely still silences in which players, audience and the spirit of the composer seem to merge briefly into complete understanding.” Bravo, Mark!

You might just say that I heartily recommend Concordia’s traversal of Gibbons’ Fantasies and eagerly look forward to Vol. 2.

GIBBONS: Fantaises Royales Jordi Savall, Christophe Coin, Sergi Casademunt with Johannes Sonnleitner (organ) Astrée E 7747 (1979)

This analog original covers Fantasies only, except the In Nomine a 4 thrown in. Now, just how do you play a 6-part piece with just 3 fiddles? Oh, you have the organist add the others. Which is what you have here. Compared to Concordia’s CD, this gives us perhaps the funhouse mirror version. To be sure, this kind of substitution was a valid one of the day: you played what you had with what you got. But this seems slightly short measure, especially considering how little Gibbons was available in 1979. The recorded quality is also more to the wheeze and buzz kind of viol sound than Concordia’s. Which ain’t necessarily the fault of the players. That’s what you get when you hang a mic directly over stringed instruments. Audiences hear strings virtually 90 degrees off-axis from the top f-holes and usually about 10 feet back. When I recorded the Tokyo String Quartet I hung the coincident mics almost at eye-level with the seated players. And about 6 feet forward of them.