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William BYRD (1539/40 - 1623): "Complete Fantasias for Harpsichord"

Glen Wilson, Naoko Akutagawaa, harpsichord

rec: May 13 - 16, 2010, Wertheim, Kloster Bronnbach
Naxos - 8.572433 (© 2011) (77'30")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

anon (attr Byrd): Praeludium (FVB 117); Praeludium (MB LV,3); ?John BULL (1562/63-1628): Doric Music (MB XIV,59); William BYRD: Fantasia No. 1 in C (earlier version: MB XXVII,26); Fantasia No. 2 in G (MB XXVIII,62); Fantasia in C (MB XXVII,25); Fantasia in d minor (MB XXVIII,46); Fantasia in G (MB XXVIII,63); Fantasia in g minor (MB LV,55); Fantasia in a minor (MB XXVII,13); Praeludium in C (MB XXVII,24); Praeludium in g minor (MB XXVII,1); Praeludium to the Fancie in a minor (MB XXVII,12); Ut, mi, re (MB XXVIII,65); Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la in F (MB XXVIII,58)a; Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la in G (MB XXVIII,64)
[MB: Musica Brittannica; FVB: Fitzwilliam Virginal Book]

Without exaggeration William Byrd can be considered one of the greatest composers of keyboard music in history. In English history he is second to none. This disc with the Fantasias from his pen is an impressive demonstration of his skills as a composer for the keyboard. Which instrument is the best way of performing them is largely a matter of preference. Some Fantasias could probably also be performed at the organ, and the virginals is also a good alternative. Glen Wilson plays a copy of a harpsichord by the Flemish builder Ruckers, and that suits the repertoire on this disc quite well.

From the 16th century until well into the 18th the Fantasia was a popular genre in keyboard music. It has no fixed form, and finds its origin in improvisation which was a basic skill of all keyboard players. This explains that Fantasias can strongly differ from one composer to the other, but also within the oeuvre of a single composer. The latter is demonstrated on this disc. What they have largely in common is that they comprise various sections of contrasting character. Byrd's Fantasias usually begin with a fugal episode. After that we hear homophonic sections, episodes of imitative polyphony and virtuosic passagework. In some Fantasias a song is quoted, such as in the Fantasia in C which closes this disc, quoting "Sick, sick, in grave I wish I were". Two songs are quoted in Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la in F: first we hear "The woods so wild" which was often used for variations in English keyboard music, and later "The shaking of the sheets". This piece is a so-called Hexachord Fantasia in which the six notes in the title are played throughout the piece. In this particular Fantasia these notes are played in the treble from start to finish "by a beginner", as Glen Wilson writes in his liner-notes. In this recording that part is played by Naoko Akutagawa - not a beginner, by the way: she has several excellent recordings to her name.

The other Hexachord Fantasia is Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la in G which includes some strong dissonances. Glen Wilson comes up with an explanation of this piece's content of which I don't know how much it is based on speculation from his side. In this case he sees the Fantasia as a reference to the marriage of Mary Stuart, the birth of her son (the later King James I) and the murder of her husband. This would make this piece rather controversial, considering that Byrd was a Catholic, living under the reign of the firmly protestant Elizabeth I. This piece is immediately followed by Ut, mi, re, which - like the previous piece - is included in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, as a kind of 'postlude' - probably not an appropriate description of a piece which is almost as long as the preceding Fantasia.

The Fantasia in d minor is an example of a piece which could probably also be played at the organ, considering its "solemn mood", as Wilson writes, and also as it begins with a quotation of the opening motif of the Marian antiphon Salve Regina. It is preceded by Doric Music which is anonymous but is attributed to John Bull, who was one of Byrd's pupils. It is full of strong dissonances and is used here as a kind of prelude. In various cases Wilson has done the same, in tracks 3 and 4, 5 and 6 and 14 and 15. In the first case this is indicated by Byrd himself as the title of the Praeludium to the Fancie in a minor suggests.

This is a most fascinating disc which sheds light on one of the genre's of Byrd's large keyboard oeuvre. There is no lack of recordings of his keyboard music, but a programme which is devoted to the fantasia is particularly illuminating as it shows the versatility within this genre. Glen Wilson delivers brilliant and engaging performances. How much he is involved with this music is also clear from his liner-notes which are at least challenging, even if his interpretations of some Fantasias' content may seem speculative. For instance the song he claims to be quoted in Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la in F: "The shaking of the sheets" is characterised as a "frank dance of death". Searching at the internet I learned that this song also is known with other titles, and probably also other texts. I wonder whether this implies that there are other plausible explanations for its inclusion in this piece.

One interesting part of his notes deserves mention: when Philip II of Spain married Mary Tudor he brought some of his musicians with him, among them the keyboard player Antonio de Cabezón. "Cabezón was one of the first to employ the thoroughly balanced four-part texture in keyboard music which had barely been seen in England before then, and which suddenly appears there, fully-fledged, with Byrd". Apparently the English composers of the time didn't live and work as much in a "splendid isolation" as one may think. Wilson also mentions the possibility of Byrd having been in Italy, which could explain the "elaborate Italian figuration" in some of his works.

The quality of music, performance, instrument and programme notes makes this a splendid release.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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Glen Wilson

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