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"The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, Volume 1"

Pieter-Jan Belder, harpsichord, virginala

rec: Sept 2010, NH Kerk, Mijnsherenland
Brilliant Classics - 94303 (2 CDs) (© 2012) (2.25'40")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

anon: Barafostus' Dreame (XVIII); Nowel's Galliard (CCXLIV); John BULL (1562/63-1628): Galiarda (XLVIII); Gloria tibi trinitas [In Nomine] (XLIV); In Nomine (XXXVII); In Nomine (CXIX); Pavana (XXXIV); Piper's Galliard (CLXXXII); Praeludium (XLIII); The King's Hunt (CXXXV); Walsingham (I); William BYRD (c1540-1623): Coranto (CCXLI)a; Fantasia (VIII); Galliarda (XCIV); Pavana Ph. Tr. (XCIII); The Bells (LXIX); Giles FARNABY (1562-1640): Fantasia (CXXIX); Muscadin (CCXCIII); Pavana (CCLXXXV); Pawles Wharfe (CXIII); The K[ing's] Hunt (LIII); The Old Spagnoletta (CCLXXXIX); Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625): Pavana (CCXCII); William INGLOT (1554-1621): The Leaves bee greene (CCLI); Edward JOHNSON (fl 1572-1601): Johnson's Medley (CCXLIII); John MUNDAY (c1555-1630) / Thomas MORLEY (1557/58-1602): Goe from my window ((XLII); Martin PEERSON (c1572-1651): Piper's Paven (CLXXXII); The Fall of the Leafe (CCLXXII); Peter PHILIPS (1560/61 - 1628): Amarilli di Julio Romano (LXXXII)a; Pavana Pagget & Galiarda (LXIV & LXV); Giovanni PICCHI (c1571-1643): Toccata (XCV); Nicholas STROGERS (fl 1560-1575): Fantasia (LXXXIX); Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656): A Grounde (CXXX); Barafostus' Dreame (CXXXI)

The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is one of the largest manuscripts of keyboard pieces in history. In the 18th century it was in the possession of Johann Christoph Pepusch, a German composer who settled in England and had a specific interest in the music of previous eras. How exactly it came into his possession is not known, and as a result its history is hard to reconstruct. It is generally assumed it was compiled by Francis Tregian the Younger, but when and how he put this collection together is still a mystery. The booklet includes an article by Greg Holt (also to be found on his website) who comes up with some interesting suggestions. It is impossible to be sure, though, whether he is right.

It is interesting to look at the content of the manuscript. It includes a number of pieces by famous composers, such as William Byrd, John Bull and Thomas Tomkins. Many of these are also known from other sources. There are also pieces by little-known composers, for instance Nicholas Strogers and William Inglot; some composers are anonymous. The compiler must have had a wide network which gave him access to pieces which probably didn't have such a wide circulation. It is especially intriguing how a piece like the Toccata by the Italian composer Giovanni Picchi found its way into the manuscript. In the early 1590s Francis Tregian had worked in Rome for some time and may have acquired it there. The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is the only source of this piece.

The title of the collection does not imply that this music needs to be performed at the instrument we now know as virginal. This term was generally used for a keyboard instrument with strings, including the harpsichord. Very little is known about the kind of harpsichords which were played around 1600, the time the music in this manuscript was written. It has been suggested that harpsichords were imported from Antwerp - where the famous Ruckers dynasty had its workshop - and from Italy. However, this is questioned by John Koster in the article on the harpsichord in New Grove. This is a relevant issue in regard to the instruments which Pieter-Jan Belder has chosen for his recording. He uses three different copies of Ruckers harpsichords and a copy of an Italian harpsichord. Only two items are played at a virginal.

The pieces in this collection can be divided into various categories: free works of a polyphonic character, such as fantasias or preludes; variations on popular tunes (Goe from my window), dances (alman, pavan and galliard - the latter mostly in pairs), pieces which are based on plainchant (In Nomine), grounds, transcriptions of secular vocal works (Amarilli) and character pieces (The King's Hunt). Sometimes pieces fall into more than one category, such as Byrd's The Bells, a character piece which is based on a repeated pattern of two notes. The technical level of the pieces is also very different, from simple dances (Byrd's Coranto) to highly sophisticated compositions as Bull's Walsingham or Tomkins' Barafostus Dreame. Even within a specific category the character of pieces can be quite different, as the comparison between the In Nomine compositions by John Bull shows.

Although a number of pieces are also known from other sources and have been recorded before, a complete recording of this collection makes sense, in particular because it allows the lesser-known composers to become better known as well. The works by Giles Farnaby, for instance, are almost exclusively known through the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. In his capacity as a composer he was an amateur, but a very good one. Several recordings devoted to his music (Bradford Tracey, Pierre Hantaļ, Glen Wilson) and the pieces in this set confirm his qualities.

Pieter-Jan Belder has made an attractive choice of pieces of different style and character, which results in a compelling programme of almost two and a half hours of music. For many that may be too much of a good thing; they are well advised to choose a number of tracks at a time. Keyboard aficionados will have less of a problem here, which bears witness to the richness of the repertoire and also to Belder's playing which is technically assured and musically convincing. If there is one regret it would be that he uses the virginal only twice. I would have liked him to use it more frequently.

This project has made a very good start, and there is every reason to look forward to the next volumes.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Pieter-Jan Belder

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