"The best damn record we've ever made"

The eclipse of live performance by CDs and MP3s means that a number of composers are familiar to us from recordings, but rarely receive live performances. One such is the late-16 century Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, and it was therefore a delight last Saturday to hear his variations on "Mein junges Leben hat ein End (My young life has an end)" played on the organ of St Michael's Church, Framlingham (above) in Suffolk. The occasion was the recital by Malcolm Russell given in memory of renown organ builder Noel Mander who lived nearby, and died in September 2005 aged 93.

I first came to know Sweelinck's music through Glenn Gould's (right) recording of Tudor consorte music which on the CD version (but not the LP) includes Gould's own piano transcription of the Fantasia in D. The placing of Sweelinck alongside William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons is totally appropriate as Sweelinck was a vital link, both geographically and musically, between the Tudor keyboard style and the Northern German composers, from which eventually flowered the music of Buxtehude and, of course, Gould's beloved Bach. William Russel's perceptive programme for the Framlingham recital also reflected this link with a sequence of Sweelinck, Buxtehude and Bach. (See below for the full programme).

Gould described the consorte music recording as "the best damn record we've ever made" and placed it alongside his Prokofiev and Scriabin album. I can only agree, this is one truly gorgeous disc, and well worth seeking out if you don't know it. His Byrd and Gibbons on the piano is quite wonderful. Yes, I know Tudor music on a piano is politically and academically incorrect. But I am sorry - for me this disc is an important, and visionary, document. And without it I may well not have started on an overgrown path to explore Sweelinck's complete canon.

Sweelink's most familiar organ work is the Echo Fantasia in A minor. There is a delightful recording on, appropriately, the Dutch Globe label played by Anneke Uittenbosch who mixes organ and harpsichord in a delightful recital. But for me the real delights are the Cantiones Sacrae. For recording of these look no further than the highly recommended Hyperion discs with Trinity College Chapel Choir, Cambridge, directed by Richard Marlow. The first CD includes the familiar Hodie Christus natus est. Please share my delight in Sweelinck's glorious choral music by listening to five minutes of his Magnificat anima mea Dominum (My soul doth magnify the Lord) -

The organ in St Michael's (photo at head of article) on which the Sweelinck was played is a remarkable historic instrument. The case dates from 1580 while the pipework was originally built by Thomas Tamar for Pembroke College in 1674. This means the organ case was built when Sweelinck was just 18 - you can't get a more original instrument performance than that! The case is one of only eight to have survived destruction by Purian leader Oliver Cromwell when England was declared a republic in 1649. (For those whose English history is rusty I should add the republic was shortlived. When Cromwell died in 1658, he was succeeded as Lord Protector by his son, Richard. The republic then collapsed into financial chaos and disputes between the military and administration increased, parliament was dissolved and Richard Cromwell was overthrown in 1660 - plus ça change!) Framlingham is rich in history, not least Framlingham castle which is just up the road from St Michael's Church. The castle was given, in 1553, by King Edward VI to his sister Mary Tudor (right). She stayed at Framlingham while waiting her sucession to the crown, which hung in the balance. Her colours flew over the gateway and thousands of her supporters camped around the castle. Finally the Earl of Arundel arrived to inform her she was Queen, and she proceeded to London.

The programme for Malcolm Russell's recital at St Michael's, Framlingham on 17th June 2006 to celebrate the life of Noel Mander was:
*Chorale Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier BWV 731
Chorale Prelude Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier - J S Bach 1695 - 1750
* Six variations on Mein junges Leben hat ein End - J P Sweelinck 1562 - 1621
* Ciacona in E minor Bux 160 - D Buxtehude 1637 - 1707
* Pièce d'orgue in G BWV 572 Vif - Grave - Lentement - J S Bach
* Concerto No V Op 4 in F Major Sicialana - Presto (Walsh solo edition) - G F Handel 1685 - 1759
*Voluntary in G major No lV Op 5 Adagio - Allegro - J Stanley 1713 - 1786
* Larghetto in f sharp (1868) - S S Wesley 1810 - 1876
*Sonata No lV Op 65 Allegro - Andante religioso - Allegretto - Allegro maestoso & vivace - F B Mendelssohn 1809 - 1847
* Chorale Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier - J S Bach(without applause)

Image credits: Framligham organ from KCOA: Glenn Gould from Classical-composers.org. Mary Tudor from Framlingham Castle. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to I am a camera - Leipzig


Pliable said…
And talking of early music on the piano Rameau's Nouvelles Suites played by Alexandre Tharaud is another gorgeous disc.
Pliable said…
The ever entertaining Topix.net news feed in the US has decided to use my image of Mary Tudor as the thumbnail with this story.

The "The best damn record we've ever made" your Majesty?
Anonymous said…
A lovely post ... thanks.

"Gould described the consorte music recording as "the best damn record we've ever made" and placed it alongside his Prokofiev and Scriabin album. I can only agree, this is one truly gorgeous disc ..."

Indeed. One of my favourite recordings, although it's not that easy to explain why. Somehow, Gould captures the spirit of the music in a way that I find completely convincing.

I notice that the Sweelinck "Fantasia in D" is a studio recording from 1964. Do you know if that's the same "Fantasia in D" as on the 1959 Salzburg recital? If so, I may have to satisfy my curiosity and buy the "Tudor" CD to replace my LP - the earlier live "Fantasia in D" is almost 2 minutes slower than the later studio Fantasia (9'14" vs. 7'20"). And the slower one seems fairly hair-raising in spots already. If it's the same piece, maybe repeats are omitted from the later version ...
Pliable said…
Scott, the Sweelinck Fantasia is not the Salzburg recital. It is actually a mono version taken from a CBC Television broadcast in 1964. The CD issue is actually the first authorised release. The quality is more than acceptable and the mono sound is not a problem. (Obviously the rest of the CD is stereo).
Anonymous said…
Ah ... I should have been a bit clearer, perhaps. I'm aware that the two aren't the same performance (they could hardly be that when one is almost 2 minites longer). I was checking whether it's the same piece of music, "Fantasia in D" being a fairly generic title.
Pliable said…
Scott, it is quite possible they were the same piece, a two minute variation was nothing for Gould. His 1955 Goldberg recording takes 38 minutes 26 seconds, his 1981 version takes 51 minutes 14 seconds!

Seriusly though, the piece is identified as Sweelinck's Fantasia in D Minor for Organ (arr. for piano).
Anonymous said…
placed alongside one another i have a slight preference for the salzburg recording.it's not so determined,dancing along in the central section.
With the exception of pointless/petulant recordings of music he didn't like (Mozart sonatas)i think Gould was tremendously imaginative in his choices of repertoire.

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