Sweelinck: Organ Works

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COMPOSERS: Sweelinck
LABELS: Chandos Chaconne
WORKS: Organ Works
PERFORMER: Robert Woolley (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 0701
Much of Sweelinck’s keyboard music, unpublished in his lifetime but haphazardly preserved in manuscript copies, is unrecorded; half of Woolley’s selection is new to the catalogue. One of the characteristics of his style, common to toccatas, fantasias and variations alike, is a sense of controlled improvisation, reflected in this thoughtful playing. Some of the music itself wanders timelessly – chorale variations on ‘Erbarm dich’, clothed in ambivalent harmony, oscillate constantly between modes. By contrast, the uncompromisingly major-key ‘Allein Gott’ is integrated and purposeful, as, too, the familiar ‘Mein junges Leben’, beautifully shaped and revealing a charming range of colours.

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The 1643 Pieterskerk organ in Leiden was scrupulously restored in 1998, an exceptionally fine and apt instrument for Sweelinck. Helpful booklet notes give specification and sample indications of Woolley’s use of it, responding to the 17th-century instruction to leave no stop untouched lest they should ‘through misuse stiffen or become silent’ – the tonal variety is a delight.

The long reverberation of loud final chords reveals the recording challenge. It’s well met, but, despite Woolley’s lifted touch, virtuosic figurations are sometimes clouded. Meantone tuning struck me as bitter-sweet in an opening Toccata, but lends creamy smoothness to quiet sustained chords elsewhere.

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Clearly, a must for organ buffs – but strongly persuasive for the uninitiated, too. George Pratt