Bertrand Cuillier harpsichord & virginal
This remains one of the finest recordings of keyboard music by Byrd – and his contemporaries – released during the twenty-first century. I owned its first issue from 2005, purchased at a wonderful shop in Carlisle called Bookcase: classical CDs + antiquarian books = perfection. So it was appropriate to have bought there a disc reflective of the shop, which is still trading. The upheaval of a removal from northern Scotland to eastern England meant that M. Cuiller’s disc left my possession, but I am delighted, not only to own it again, but to be reviewing it for the final hurrah of this ornament among early music periodicals.
Besides the clean playing, sensitive choice of instrument for each piece, and judicious tempi, another of the fine features of this recording is the excellent selection of repertory. Weightier pieces alternate with lighter ones, so that after the initial Fantasia in d, with its echoes of the Salve Regina chant, M. Cuiller moves to The queen’s alman before involving Bull, the first of the two composers other than Byrd who are each allowed two pieces, and his magnificent In nomine MB9 which manages to be both experimental and retrospective. Given a disc of such high quality it is perhaps invidious to select one piece as a highlight, but Byrd’s sublime Pavan and Galliard BK16/T 511 would be my lone “desert island” choice from the recording – the aching delicacy of the first strain in the pavan and the ageless theme opening the galliard enhance this or any other repertory. The three catchy French Corantos lead us to the monumental solemnity of the Dolorosa Pavan and Galliard by Philips, like Bull a pupil of Byrd. Both of the next two pieces, the Ground BK9/ T 474 and the title track, encapsulate the disc within their own bounds, beginning soberly then accelerating into activity, the latter exhibiting even more variety in alternating animated and calm passages before a dignified close. Like the BK16/T 511 pairing, Lady Monteagle’s Pavan is one of Byrd’s less noticed pieces in the genre, but illustrates that all of Byrd’s pavans possess their own unique sound-worlds and individual moments, this one being the third strain, a sudden heart-stopping theme resembling a folksong which nonetheless evolves naturally from what has gone before. Further clever programming brings the Fantasia BK62/T 456 based on a theme subsequently used in one of his fantasias by Philips. M. Cuiller is at his best here, bringing out all the melodic, harmonic and temporal variety in Byrd’s virtuosic writing wherein, towards the conclusion, ideas positively gush forth and almost fall over one another. Then, after the boisterousness of The King’s Hunt by John Bull – perhaps the Boris Johnson of the English virginalists – the disc closes with the exquisite Pavan BK23a/T 512 in B flat, bringing this classic recording to a calm, dignified, profound and fulfilling close.
To confirm that I have retained the reviewer’s critical faculties, I would observe that the booklet could be more informative about the individual pieces. And it is a shame not to have the Galliard BK23b/T 512 – perhaps M. Cuiller found in the Pavan his ideal conclusion… but wait – there is an uncredited encore! Right at the end, after a prolonged pause, he adds an anonymous Toy which is no 268 in the second printed volume of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book… so no need for a galliard!