Sweelinck Goes Home – And Has Never Sounded So Good!
The idea of “taking a musical journey” is pretty much a meaningless cliché – but not always! Organist Jonathan Dimmock’s two-CD set, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck: Master of the Dutch Renaissance, will send you on a rewarding musical journey to places you thought you knew but suddenly seem brand new. Dimmock, an accomplished and well-known Bay Area organist, traveled to northern Europe a couple of years ago to record the music of Sweelinck on “three landmark mean-tone organs” in Holland and Sweden: Hervormde Gemeente (Reformed Church) of Oosthuizen and Andreaskerk, Hattem (both in The Netherlands), and Örgryte Nya Kyrka, Göteborg (Sweden).
His CDs introduce you to three historic instruments in Sweelinck’s homeland, similar to ones Sweelinck himself might have played. The rich tonal resources of these instruments bring fresh, vibrant color to Sweelinck’s music; the mean-tone tuning of the organs endows the pieces Jonathan plays with exciting harmonic nuance; the spacious acoustics are realistically captured in the recordings; the breadth of selected repertoire weaves a vast aural tapestry that animates the legacy of this outstanding musical figure; the ULSI (Ultra Linear Stereo Image) recording technology results in superb organ-sound reproduction; finally, Jonathan’s consummate grasp of Sweelinck’s music and his artistry in realizing it so sensitively and flawlessly deliver a transcendent listening experience.
The first disc features the Oosthuizen and Andreaskerk instruments. The Oosthuizen organ, restored by Flentrop in 1967 and again in 2003, dates back to 1521 or earlier and is one of the best-preserved 16th-century organs of northern Europe. The Andreaskerk organ also dates back to the 16th century with a restoration by Flentrop in 1974. Jonathan puts these one-manual instruments through their paces with sets of variations on secular melodies and chorale tunes, fantasias, and some fanciful dances by Heinrich Scheidemann and William Byrd, contemporaries of Sweelinck. Byrd’s variations on The Woods so Wilde, written for English virginal, are absolutely idiomatic on the Dutch organs, especially at the hands of this organist who nimbly changes registrations in perfect synchronization with the seamless flow of Byrd’s short repetitive variations.
Much can be written extolling the elegance, virtuosity, and variety of Sweelinck’s compositions. He was guided by a sure sense of “stasis” and “kinesis,” that is, “long stretches of slow-moving notes … a sense of calm and ease at the beginning of a piece … concluding with a lengthy display of brilliance, fast scales, thick texture, and what we might describe today as an exhibition of pyrotechnics.” One could easily write at length, too, about Jonathan Dimmock’s skillful and insightful rendering of Sweelinck’s keyboard music in all its different forms.
A few words about mean-tone temperament, however, are a must. Simply put, some keys in mean-tone are more in tune than others, some intervals purer than others. To quote Jonathan’s notes, “the nature of mean-tone temperament means that certain chords have an agreeable sweetness to their sounds, others a disagreeable character. Sweelinck uses this ‘sweet and sour’ tonality to great advantage.” Harmonic tension is magnified and made more complex as the “sweetness” of exquisitely in-tune harmonies is continuously juxtaposed with the “sourness” of less “in-tune” harmonies, be the texture homophonic, melodic, or contrapuntal. Mean-tone tuning subtly yet discernibly shades the music, imbues it with a harmonic slipperiness and dynamism. Listen to these organs and you’ll hear.
The best single case in point of mean-tone in action would be Sweelinck’s Fantasia Chromatica, an extended through-composed work with a formulaic opening subject of long notes (“stasis”) descending by half-step. The chromatic melodic motion is energized by extra “closeness” between certain of the semitones, a characteristic of mean-tone. The build-up of accelerating passagework (“kinesis”) bouncing kaleidoscopically off the constant cycling of long notes further bends the bounds of intonation normally held in check by equal temperament.
The second CD features the organ at Örgrye Nya Kyrka in Göteborg. This four-manual, 54-stop instrument, built in the organ research workshop at Göteborg University and inaugurated in 2000, is “the scientific reconstruction of a large North German Baroque city organ from around 1700.” It is modeled after the work of Arp Schnitger, the most famous organ-builder in northern Germany the secone half of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th.
If Sweelinck’s music comes vigorously to life on the Dutch organs, then it is supercharged by the Göteborg organ’s wealth of tonal resources. Whether a lone eight-foot flue stop plaintively calling out from a humble bicinium, or a plenum combination topped with brilliant mixtures and reeds, or something from the big canvas in between, the organ colors Jonathan applies in their turn glow every step of the way. He is not afraid to enlist solitary stops to register a piece. In the first of three variations on Psalm 36, Des boosdoenders wille seer quaet, he plays one of the most beautiful eight-foot principals you will ever hear. In the second variation, an equally fetching four-foot octave lovingly carries the melody in the pedal. Bang – in jumps the third variation with a full complement of pedal reeds! This is a track you will want to replay for the sheer thrill of it.
Like the first, disc two covers a range of Sweelinck’s compositions: Variations on psalm tunes, chorales, and dances, plus a rollicking echo fantasia with deftly executed “echoing” phrases, some as fleeting as four beats. Pavana Lachrimae (Pavane of Tears), a melancholy dance based on a John Dowland song, exemplifies a more subdued side of Sweelinck’s expressive palette. Taking the cue, Jonathan plays the entire six-minute piece using single eight-foot flue stops on each manual, beginning with a delicate eight-foot principal on the Brustpositiv. In Ballo del granduca, a buoyant court dance, bright imaginative registrations are used in the six component variations “to emphasize the playful nature of the music.” In short, the organist successfully matches registration with mood and content every time. His registration choices are in large part why the music crackles with life in these recordings.
The two-CD Loft Recordings package is a work of art in itself. Photographs of the organs, taken by the organist, generously adorn his own easy-to-digest program notes. Stoplists of the two Dutch organs are printed along with fascinating histories of all three organs. A stoplist of the Göteborg organ can be accessed online through the Gothic catalog website. Registrations for most of the tracks are published online as well; likewise, information about ULSI recording technology…
Jonathan Dimmock’s CDs are sure to spark a new interest in and appreciation of Sweelinck’s organ music. They are the perfect resource for hearing Sweelinck with “new ears” and moving a few giant steps closer to understanding what makes his music so powerful and enduring. Renew your connection with this old Dutch master by owning a copy of this magnificent recording. It is – forgive me – a “musical journey” you will be glad you took.
– Douglas Franks
SFAGO Newsletter, April 2009