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Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Sämtliche Werke für Tasteninstrumente, Vol. II: Fantasien. Ed. Pieter Dirksen. (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 2006.
Reviewed by Gregory Crowell

For over 30 years the famous Leonhardt/ Annegarn/Noske edition of the keyboard works of Sweelinck has served as the trusted source for the music of this most significant of Dutch keyboard composers. Why, one might wonder, is another edition called for? Although new sources have emerged that, in themselves, might warrant at least a revised edition, it is in fact a new approach to editing early keyboard music that has prompted those responsible for this newest edition to rethink how this music should be presented to modern players and scholars.

In his excellent introductory notes to this second volume of the series, Pieter Dirksen lays out the criteria for the present edition. These include a desire to present a text for each piece that reflects as accurately as possible an extant source for the music, as opposed to presenting an amalgamation of many sources. This in itself is a significant editorial stance whose time has certainly come. (So-called Urtext editions have all too often blended information from many sources, sometimes resulting ironically in a version of the music that may never have existed in the composer’s lifetime.)

The present edition recognizes that Sweelinck’s music has come down to us primarily in two forms, i.e., in staff notation and tablature. Since each of these notational systems presents a very different picture of the music, the editors have chosen to treat the modern transcription of the music in a manner that reflects the sources accurately. Tablature, for example, does not indicate barlines – consequently this edition supplies suggested barlines between the staves for those pieces surviving primarily in sources written in tablature. In the early, six-lined staff notation, measures correspond to the value of a breve (i.e., the value of eight crotchets). This notation is preserved in the present edition, as is a slight space in the middle of the bar, which helps the eye to divide each bar into two halves, a notational refinement also present in the original staff notation.

The editor has taken great care to preserve every bit of information in the original sources that might supply the player with insight into how this music is to be played. For example, the beaming of the original sources is preserved: Pieces preserved in staff notation may have as many as sixteen semiquavers beamed together, providing a graphic clue as to the shape and size of individual musical gestures. The original division of the voices between the staves has also been preserved, a fact that is of tremendous help to the player in working out the division of voices among the hands. Furthermore, the titles conform exactly to those given in the original sources —editorial completions or amplifications are clearly indicated by their inclusion in square brackets. Thus, the only comprises undertaken in this edition are the substitution of dots extending across barlines with ties, and the use of modern clefs and staves.

The introductory comments bear the fruit of Dirksen’s extensive research into Sweelinck’s life and works. All material is presented in German and English and, aside from some infelicities in the English translations, well presented and informative. Each volume has complementary articles on performance practice issues and the instruments at Sweelinck’s disposal, and players will certainly want to invest in all four volumes. Furthermore, no attempt has been made to supplant the rather extensive critical commentary in the Leonhardt – Annegarn - Noske edition, which therefore can be used in conjunction with this new edition.

Volume II concludes with a rather lengthy essay by Dirksen on Sweelinck’s instruments, and it is perhaps this aspect of the new edition that deserves the most circumspection. Sweelinck was, of course, an organist (details on the organ in the Amsterdam Oude Kerk are given in Volume III), but Dirksen notes that not only did Sweelinck go to Antwerp to procure a Ruckers double harpsichord, but that the lid of this harpsichord has recently resurfaced. Dirksen’s assertion, however, that the clavichord played “a negligible role” in Sweelinck’s musical life seems rather rash. Certainly there is no evidence of Sweelinck’s use of the clavichord, but this is hardly unexpected in the case of an instrument that, until the twentieth century, was virtually never heard in public performance. Dirksen furthermore claims, curiously, that meantone temperament can be realized “only approximately on the clavichord,” and that “the demanding and intricately polyphonic keyboard style of the master and his pupils…could not be adequately interpreted on the clavichord, an instrument that was still often triple fretted at that time.” These statements will come as quite a surprise to those who have so successfully performed and even recorded this music in quarter-comma meantone on clavichords appropriate to the period. Indeed, the considerable effort Dirksen exerts to assign particular genres and even particular pieces to a specific instrument (organ or harpsichord) hardly seems time well spent.

The respective keyboard compasses of the two instruments are hardly a reliable basis on which to draw such conclusions, given the wide instrumentarium available to composers of the time —the organs in the Oude Kerk may well have had an F compass, but there surely was no shortage of C-compass organs, including chamber organs. Nor are distinctions of genre or texture any more useful —one fully expects that the psalm settings or chorale variations might also have been played for domestic devotions, very possibly on stringed keyboard instruments. The truth is, we simply don’t know, and perhaps this is as it should be; any attempt to assign instrumentation in these works inevitably limits the rich colour palette and diverse playing styles to which they so beautifully respond. Indeed, the division of Sweelinck’s music into volumes that at least give the appearance of being for either organ or harpsichord (sacred or secular, free or studied) seems somewhat restrictive, and should not discourage anyone from obtaining all four volumes, no matter what instrument one may have at one’s disposal.

This caveat aside, this edition sets a standard for the faithful and scholarly presentation of a composer’s music in a readable, attractive format. Anyone interested in Sweelinck’s music will want to acquire these scores right away, and begin rediscovery of this wonderful music.