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English virginal music

[I] William BYRD (c1540-1623): "One Byrde in Hande"
Richard Egarr, harpsichord
rec: Jan 18 - 20, 2017, Haarlem, Doopsgezinde Gemeente
Linn Records - CKD 518 ( 2018) (62'59")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Fantasia in C (MB 25); Fantasia in G (MB 62); Fantasia in a minor (MB 13); Ground in C (MB 43); Ground in G (MB 9); Lachrymae Pavan (MB 54); Pavan and Gallliard in a minor (MB 16); Prelude in C (MB 24); Prelude in g minor (MB 1); Prelude in a minor (MB 12); The bells (MB 38); Ut re mi fa sol la (MB 64); Ut mi re (MB 65)

[II] "The Passing Mesures"
Mahan Esfahani, virginala, harpsichordb
rec: Nov 25 - 27, 2017, Monmouth (UK), Wyastone Estate (Concert Hall)
Hyperion - CDA68249 ( 2018) (77'43")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Can she excuse my wrongsb; The Scottish gigga; Variations on the Romanescaa; John BULL (1562/63-1628): Chromatic (Queen Elizabeth's) pavan and galliardb; Fantasia Mr Dr Bullb; William BYRD (c1540-1623): The ninth pavian and galliarde, the Passing mesuresb; Ut, re. mi, fa, sol, lab; Giles FARNABY (c1563-1640): Fantasia (FVB CXXIX); Nobodyes Gigge (FVB CXLIX)b; Tell mee, Daphne (FVB CCLXXX)a; Why aske you (FVB CCLXXXVI)b; Wooddy-Cock (FVB CXLI)b; Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625): Pavinin M. Orlando Gibbonsb; The woods so wildb; William INGLOT (1554-1621): The leaves bee greene (FVB CCLI)a; Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656): Barafostus Dreame (FVB CXXXI)b; Pavana (FVB CXXIII)b

One of the main sources of European keyboard music is the art of the English virginalists, composers of keyboard music from the decades around 1600. The common name derives from the instrument, which was so characteristic of keyboard playing in England: the virginals. It was widely disseminated, partly because it was cheaper than the harpsichord. Samuel Pepys, in his diary, mentions that during the Great Fire of London in 1661, when people were trying to rescue their furniture by boat, there was a virginal in almost one in three of them. However, this does not mean that all keyboard music was intended to be played on the virginal. As New Grove writes, the term 'virginal' was used in England "to denote all quilled keyboard instruments well into the 17th century". That is not all. There was a long tradition of secular organ playing in England, which went back at least to Tudor times. Therefore some pieces can also be played at small organs.

One of the main exponents of virginal music is William Byrd. He was one of the most revered composers of his time, despite the fact that he was of the Catholic religion, in a time when England was under the rule of the firmly protestant Elizabeth I. Byrd contributed to almost any genre of his time: sacred and secular vocal music, consort music and music for keyboard. 42 of his keyboard works are included in My Ladye Nevells Booke, which is preserved in manuscript in the British Library. Another important source of his keyboard oeuvre is the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Byrd was also one of the three contributors to the collection Parthenia or The Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls, printed at the occasion of the wedding of Elizabeth Stuart and Frederick V, Count Palatinate of the Rhine, which took place in February 1613.

All genres are represented in Byrd's keyboard oeuvre: dances, variations on popular tunes, grounds, character pieces, fantasias, preludes and, of course, pairs of pavans and galliards. Not all of them are included in the programme recorded by Richard Egarr. In his liner-notes, he writes about his fascination for Byrd's keyboard works, and his selection is very much a personal choice of some of his favourite pieces. Even so, there is quite some variety in his selection. The short preludes and longer fantasias bear witness to Byrd's mastery of counterpoint. Quite intriguing are the two pieces based on a sequence of notes, Ut re mi fa sol la, known as hexachord, and Ut mi re. It is astonishing what Byrd is able to make out of such simple themes. Bassi ostinati, known as grounds in England, were very popular across Europe, and it does not surprise that Byrd's oeuvre includes several such pieces. Transcriptions or arrangements of pieces originally intended for other scorings constitute a major part of the repertoire of English virginalists. Dowland's Lachrymae Pavan was among the favourites. Lastly, the virginalists liked to write character pieces. Egarr's programme ends with The bells, which refers to the tradition of bell-ringing at the English countryside.

Egarr decided to confine himself to the harpsichord. He plays a copy of a Ruckers of 1638. Although the booklet unfortunately does not include any details about this instrument, it seems likely that it has two manuals. It is possible that Byrd was acquainted with this kind of instruments, as Ruckers was one of the main harpsichord builders in Europe. However, such large instruments were not very common in England. From that perspective this choice is debatable. That said, I have nothing but praise for Egarr's performances. I have been critical about some of his recordings in the past, especially his Bach interpretations, but here his performances are spot-on. His engaging and rhythmically precise playing, together with a nice variety in his selection of pieces and the way he has put the programme together, results in a compelling recital, which is a perfect survey of William Byrd's art.

Two pieces by Byrd are also included in the programme that Mahan Esfahani recorded for Hyperion, among them Ut re mi fa sol la, also performed by Egarr. The rest of the programme includes pieces by other composers of the English keyboard school, such as Byrd's pupils Bull and Tomkins. Together with Orlando Gibbons they are the best-known composers in this programme. Fortunately, it also includes pieces by lesser-known masters, such as Giles Farnaby - apparently not a composer by profession - and William Inglot. Several pieces are taken from the above-mentioned Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, which is the main source of the oeuvre of Farnaby.

Esfahani's programme has a wider scope with regard to the various genres than Egarr's Byrd recital. Again we find fantasias and dances as well as a transcription. The subject of the latter is again a piece by Dowland, this time his song Can she excuse my wrongs. More than just transcriptions are variations on popular tunes, such as Gibbons's The woods so wilde and Inglot's The leaves bee greene. The genre of the ground is represented here by anonymous variations on Romanesca. Among the most substantial pieces are the two pavan and galliard sets by Byrd and Bull respectively, and the former's Ut re mi fa sol la. Quite different are, for instance, Farnaby's Why aske you and the anonymous Scottish gigg. The latter is played on the virginal. Here Esfahani plays a copy of an English virginal, built in 1642 by Thomas White. This is a most appropriate instrument for this kind of repertoire.

The choice of harpsichord is very questionable, though. Esfahani decided to use an instrument, built by Robert Goble & Son in 1990, which is based on a harpsichord by Carl Conrad Fleischer (Hamburg, 1710). It has two manuals and three 8-foot registers. Esfahani admits that there are no historical arguments for the choice of this instrument. "I would be lying if I weren't to admit that the virginals-like quality of the instrument's registers were an attractive factor. Simply put, I like how it sounds". That seems an inappropriate argument from a historical perspective. I find this one of the problematic aspects of this recording. To be honest, I don't like the sound of the harpsichord as such, independent of the repertoire. It could be due to the quality of this instrument, which - as we take the information in the booklet literally - is not a strict copy. However, what especially puts me off is that Esfahani uses the different registers in abundance. Even in some shorter pieces he constantly changes the registration, and in some pieces we get three different registrations. I find that rather annoying, and the longer I listened the more it got on my nerves. Moreover, I feel that Esfahani takes some liberties in his treatment of tempo, which seems questionable.

There is no doubt about Esfahani's qualities as a performer. The programme is very attractive and includes several little-known items - good reasons to welcome this disc. It has received rave reviews around the globe, but I can't stand it. If you have not heard anything of this disc, try to find on the internet some tracks to listen to and decide for yourself. I certainly won't listen to this disc ever again.

Johan van Veen ( 2019)

Relevant links:

Mahan Esfahani

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