Netherlands Chamber Choir
Recorded: 3 December 1986, 23 January and 19/20 March 1987 Church Walloon, Amsterdam
Latin motets from Cantiones sacrae 1609 (36 5 part motets) - no other recordings apart from Hodie Christus natus est known to me.
The majority of Dutch Renaissance master Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck's output is vocal, but you wouldn't know that from the extent to which it is performed and recorded. This whole area of the repertoire remains practically unknown, rendered inchoate by the overwhelming precedence taken by his comparatively small body of keyboard music. Everything Sweelinck composed is available in modern editions, so there is no good reason that the vocal music remain uninvestigated, other than that it is little asked for. This is in itself a bit surprising, as his psalm settings were immensely popular in the Netherlands and were heard from Sweelinck's time into the nineteenth century.
In 1986, the Netherlands Chamber Choir decided to address this issue and recorded three volumes of Sweelinck's sacred vocal music, of which this NM Classics release is the first. On this volume, the Netherlands Chamber Choir is partnered with some very prestigious leaders and ensembles; Peter Philips is at the podium for the first five works, Ton Koopman for the next three with the remainder led by William Christie. The instrumentalists, likewise, are top drawer - Hille Perl and Jaap ter Linden are heard under Koopman, and lutenist Stephen Stubbs attends to the small continuo that provides the accompaniment for William Christie, though admittedly in these recordings the continuo is not well heard. Sweelinck's psalm settings reflect the influence of the Italian madrigal on Dutch music in the sixteenth century; textures are largely homophonic, tempi are swift, and rhythmically the music is not as fluid as Lassus or Palestrina, but it makes frequent use of imitation, canonic devices, and sometimes achieves an awesome sense of transparency. That is part of the reason why Sweelinck's psalms are regarded among the pinnacles of renaissance choral literature; however, this may partly be the reason for their obscurity; they are most effective taken one or two at a time; listened to severally they tend to blend together as his approach is so homogeneous from one to the next.
These are very good recordings of significant Renaissance sacred music that deserves to be more widely performed and recorded. However, unless one is a listener very seasoned in this type of music, caution should be taken with NM Classics' Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck: Choral Works, Vol. 1, just as one would not load up on chocolate cake with walnuts, these rich creations should be enjoyed a piece or two at a time.
========= from the cover ==========
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) is among few composers of the Northern Netherlands to enjoy an international reputation. It was made during his lifetime, as he attracted students from far and wide who came to learn from him, copy his music and adopt his style. On returning to their native countries, they would carry a stack of his compositions and testify to their deep respect for this modest 'Orpheus of Amsterdam'.
Sweelinck left travel to others, rarely venturing from the city where he worked and lived. It was only as a consultant on organ-building that he undertook occasional working visits to Holland's North. In 1604, moreover, he went on a trip to Antwerp to see members of that city's great dynasty of harpsichord makers, the Ruckers family.
If his lifestyle was homebound, his music breathed the spirit of internationalism. Sweelinck's compositions reveal an intimate familiarity with such diverse styles as the French chanson, the English school of virginalists, Italian counterpoint and the antiphonal vocal tradition of Venice.
Most of Sweelinck's vocal productions were published during his lifetime. The first publication date of a few of his Chansons is as early as 1584. The Cantiones Sacras, settings of Latin religious texts, were published in Antwerp in 1619. This impressive collection of Psalms in the French language appeared at periodic intervals throughout his working life. His choral works could still be bought in Amsterdam during the 18th century and the psalm settings continued to be performed well into the 19th century, particularly in Switzerland.
Quite different was the fate of the instrumental music that looms so large in Sweelinck's total output. No complete edition of the keyboard works ever saw print, indeed we do not possess a single autograph. Many of these works have come down to us in modified or corrupted form, often with appreciable differences between versions in different manuscripts.
There can be no doubt but that Sweelinck's keyboard and composition students were the first to copy his works and carry them home, where each copy would then lead a separate existence. Many of Sweelinck's keyboard works have been preserved outside the Netherlands in libraries over much of Europe. In the composer's own country, nothing has turned up.
Curiously enough, it is the organ and harpsichord works that are fast becoming standard performing repertoire in our day and age. Much of the vocal music remains unfamiliar, hence unloved, despite the republication of all extant works. In fairness, it needs saying that Sweelinck's music is far from simple. Part of the Renaissance tradition, its performance is not straightforward. To perform Sweelinck's vocal works well requires much study, devotion and technique, but properly tackled it is highly rewarding. Not because Sweelinck was Netherlands, but because he was a composer of true genius.
In Sweelinck's sacred choral music, a distinction needs to be made between two distinct types: the French-language Psalms, published periodically throughout his working life, and the Cantiones Sacrae, settings of Latin texts, published in 1619. The French Psalms were meant to grow into a complete Psalter intended for private use in prosperous bourgeois families, where French, not the vernacular, was the language in fashion. At no time were they envisaged for the Calvinist worship service, where rigid restrictions on the use of music applied in the composer's day.
Sweelinck's settings of the Latin texts feature some fairly modern-sounding devices, including the use of chromaticism. An unmis-takeable example may be heard toward the end of the Te Deum, when the choir sing the words miserere nostri.