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Richard Egarr - Sweelinck: Fantasias, Toccatas & Variations - American Record Guide

Egarr has chosen his favorite 11 of the about 50 available pieces by Sweelinck that work well on harpsichord: toccatas, fantasias, variations, and the arrangement of John Dowland’s Lachrymae. He includes the sprawling D-minor Fantasia from Glenn Gould’s repertoire, along with several other fantasias having similar structure: slow melancholy counterpoint that gets filled up with increasingly frenzied divisions. He is terrific at holding these big pieces together. In his booklet essay he makes it obvious that he doesn’t want to sound like a performing scholar, though he has done all his preparatory homework. To bring his own authenticity to the venture, he has lived in Amsterdam (the composer’s own city) for 30 years, and he wants to convey its life. He chides other keyboardists (not by name) for being generally too severe with this composer. It seems to be a response to the 9CD set of Sweelinck’s keyboard music published by NM (S/O 2007). That boxed set was recorded in 1999-2001 by nine organists and six harpsichordists (almost all Dutch), but not including Egarr. I’ve listened to Egarr’s selected pieces as played by his colleagues in that set: accurate with the notes, but interpretively cautious and under-characterized. To avoid this Dutch severity and make the music more sensuous, Egarr brings his usual interpretive virtues and quirks to bear. He employs super-legato “overholding” to smudge the notes together for more harpsichord resonance, and he freely bends the rhythms in slow tempos. He uses the academically proper old-style scale fingering, but not as an end in itself. (It wouldn’t be good enough merely to pronounce words correctly, but one must have something to say.) He deliberately de-synchronizes the plucking between the high and low notes, sometimes by a lot. This technique makes the contrapuntal lines sound independent. Many pieces have difficult parallel sixths in one hand, and Egarr handles these with supple finesse. Overall, his studied casualness sounds like relaxed play. He gives the last few notes of long runs extra weight and time, as if thinking about what to improvise next. All of this is like his compelling approach to William Byrd’s music (S/O 2018). Egarr emerges as easy to listen to and recommend. He is a strong communicator who advocates well for these less familiar pieces from his adopted home town. 

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American Record Guide
21 February 2020