Sweelinck: Fantasias, Toccatas & Variations

Sweelinck: Fantasias, Toccatas & Variations
Richard Eggar
Linn Records CKD 589. 76’13

Cover CKD 589

As Richard Egarr mentions at the start of his liner note, Sweelinck’s music is “mostly delivered in a severe, dry and austere manner”. His rather scholarly and intense keyboard music certainly leads towards a performance broadly within that description. Indeed, after one of my all-Sweelinck organ recitals, I was complimented with the comment “you can tell from your playing that Sweelinck was Calvinist”.

That might not be strictly true: Sweelinck’s childhood and early musical influences were in pre-reformation Amsterdam and it is not certain to what extent he continued his Catholic sympathies during his subsequent career as an organist. But he certainly worked within Calvinist liturgical restraints, meaning that he was never played for church services, but was employed by the city of Amsterdam as secular organist of the Oude Kerk. With no organ music allowed in services, his role was to play variations of the Geneva psalm melodies before and after services to familiarise the congregation. He was also paid to entertain the businessmen and local citizens who used the church as a meeting place. He was an enormously influential teacher whose pupils revolutionised North German organ music during the 17th-century.

In this recording, Richard Egarr sets out to free Sweelinck from his reputation and possible Calvinist environment, playing with a freedom, emotional power, and lack of rhythmic restraint that sheds a new light onto his keyboard music. All the pieces are played on his own harpsichord (1991, after Ruckers 1638) rather than the organ which does lend itself to a freer manner of playing. I am not sure if Egarr’s observations of life in Amsterdam today (his home) can be taken as a reflection of Sweelinck’s time there around 1600, but, like Bach, it is certainly appropriate to see him as rather more approachable and ‘human’ than has generally been assumed. HIs secular keyboard variations certainly suggest informal evenings amongst friends, although some of the larger-scale free works perhaps lose something by performance on the harpsichord rather than organ.

The influence of his English contemporaries, notably William Byrd is clear in many of the pieces. The strict ¼-comma meantone tuning perhaps overemphasises the chromaticism present in some of Sweelinck’s music. It seems that the Positive division of his Oude Kerk organ had split semitones, allowing pieces such as the Fantasia Chrommatica to be played with the chromatic notes played perfectly in tune (for example, the notes D# and Eb and G# and Ab could be played as separate notes), albeit with the characteristic distinctive wide and narrow semitones.  

There might be some discussion on Egarr’s rather sweeping contention that “Sweelinck’s music has suffered from many objective, colourless and academic performances and recordings in the name of ‘authenticity’. The modern view of performing this music in a non-expressive and detached manner is totally contrary to its vibrant and exciting content”. But this interpretation is not an entirely unreasonable one, although the sheer power and occasional lack of musical subtlety might begin to tire on repeated listening.

It was recorded in Da Doopsgezinde Gemeente, Haarlem, a resonant space, captured well by Linn, but not nearly as reverberant as Sweelinck’s Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. I do wonder if Sweelinck really did, as Egarr suggests, play the harpsichord during his performances in his own church, rather than the organ.