musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"A Cleare Day - Pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book"

Kenneth Weiss, harpsichorda, virginalb

rec: June 19 & 20, 2010 (live), Château d'Hardelot, Centre Culturel de l'Entente Cordiale
Satirino Records - SR111 (© 2011) (63'35")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, tracklist & liner-notes

anon: Why aske you (FWV CLXI)b; John BULL (c1562-1628): Walsingham (FWV I)a; William BYRD (c1542-1623): Galliard (FWV CLXIV)a; Pavana Lachrymae (FWV CXXI)a; The Queenes Alman (FWV CLXII)b; The Woods so Wild (FWV LXVII)a; Giles FARNABY (1560-1640): Wooddy-Cock (FWV CXLI)a; Orlando GIBBONS (1593-1625): Pavana (FWV CCXCII)b; John MUNDY (c1555-1630): Fantasia Faire Wether (FWV III)a; Martin PEERSON (c1571-1651): The Fall of the Leafe (FWV CCLXXII)b; Peter PHILIPS (c1560-1628): Amarilli di Julia Romano (FWV LXXXII)b; Fernando RICHARDSON (c1558-1618): Galiarda-Variatio (FWV VI-VII)a; Pavana-Variatio (FWV IV-V)a; Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656): Barafostus Dreame (FWV CXXXI)a

In England the decades around 1600, known as the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, were a truly 'golden era'. The arts flourished, not the least thanks to the court where artists, among them famous musicians, were most welcome to display their skills. In the homes of the aristocracy music also played an important role. Many of them were able to play an instrument, and often that was the virginal. As a result much music for keyboard was written, and a number of collections are still a rich source for modern performers.

Music by the English 'virginalists', as the composers of keyboard music are generally known, is frequently performed and recorded. It is a shame so often the most famous and best-known pieces are played. Kenneth Weiss' disc is different in that it includes not only well-known pieces but also lesser-known stuff.

A particularly rich source is the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. It is named after the 19th-century owner of this collection who also gave his name to a museum in Cambridge. How exactly this collection has come into existence and who has put it together is still a kind of mystery. It was once called Queen Elizabeth's Virginal Book but she certainly hasn't been its original owner as some of the pieces in the collection are written after her death. That doesn't exclude that she might have known a number of pieces from the book as it is a compilation of pieces of various dates of composition. Some of them were copied from earlier collections of keyboard music.

The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book contains 297 compositions, mostly by English composers like Bull, Byrd and Gibbons, and some by foreign composers, like Sweelinck. A number of pieces are also known from other sources, but in particular most of the keyboard works of Giles Farnaby are known only from this book. Also represented are some little-known composers like Nicholas Strogers, William Inglot and Ferdinando Richardson. The genres which were common at the time are represented: variations on popular tunes, dances, character pieces and works of a liturgical character. This is not as surprising as one may think: English organs didn't have pedals, and therefore these pieces can be played at a chamber organ, and sometimes also at another instrument, like the virginals or the harpsichord.

Although the English keyboard composers are known as 'virginalists', the word virginal should not be taken too litterally. The virginal was a popular instrument, but the word itself referred to any keyboard instrument except the organ. It is therefore certainly justified to use various keyboard instruments as Kenneth Weiss does. He uses copies of an Italian virginal, an Italian harpsichord and a Flemish harpsichord. The two harpsichords have only one manual which is the dominating type of keyboard in the decades around 1600.

Weiss has chosen some famous pieces, like the arrangement of John Dowland's Pavana Lachrymae and The Woods so Wild by William Byrd or Barafostus Dreame by Thomas Tomkins. Far lesser known are the pieces by Martin Peerson and Ferdinando Richardson. Peerson worked for some time at Westminster Cathedral and later St Paul's in London. The largest part of his oeuvre consists of sacred and secular vocal music. Although he was educated as a virginalist and organist not many keyboard pieces from his pen are known, most of which are included in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Ferdinando Richardson was a pupil of Thomas Tallis; otherwise little is known about him.

Kenneth Weiss has made a nice choice from this large source. The various genres and the use of three different instruments provide the necessary variety in the programme. In general I am pleased by Weiss' performances which shows a good understanding of the repertoire. Only now and then I found his playing a bit stiff, and some of the tempi are a little too slow. Farnaby's Wooddy-Cock, for instance, could have been played faster. This kind of music was first and foremost meant to be played at home, in private surroundings, and that comes off well in Weiss' recording.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

CD Reviews