Byrd: Walsingham

Jean-Luc Ho organ/harpsichord
70:00
encelade ECL1401
Clarifica me Pater (III), Fantasias in D, G & A, Parson’s In Nomine, The Maiden’s Song, My Lady Nevell’s Ground, Pavan in A, Sir William Petre Pavan & Galliard, The Queen’s Alman, Susannah Fair, Ut re mi fa sol la & Walsingham

On this disc the French musician Jean-Luc Ho plays fifteen pieces by Byrd on two modern instruments which are “after” models from the sixteenth century. The organ, by Aurelien Delarge and Guillaume Rebinguet-Sudre (2012), is based on an instrument in Alkmaar which was the work of Hans von Coblentz (1511), while the harpsichord, by Ryo Yoshida (2010), is based on an original by the Venetian maker Alessandro Trasuntino of 1531 which is now at the Royal College of Music in London.

The list of the recording’s contents throws up two intriguing items. In 1999 Hyperion released Davitt Moroney’s recording of Byrd’s Complete keyboard music (CDA66551/7). However, Byrd’s contemporaries arranged several of his vocal or consort works for keyboard (published in Musica Britanica 55 or 66). Given the nature of Moroney’s project, he rightly excluded them from his boxed set, apart from O quam gloriosum because he agreed with Oliver Neighbour that it is the work of Byrd himself. Of the many recordings of Byrd’s keyboard music which have continued to be released since Moroney’s magnum opus, Aapo Hakkinen’s excellent William Byrd (1540-1623): music for the virginals has included the premiere of one such arrangement, the Lullaby (Alba ABCD 148, released in 2000). Now two more of these arrangements, both premieres, have been included on the record under review, establishing it as an important contribution to Byrd discography. The arrangements in question are of Susanna fair from Byrd’s Psalmes, sonets and songs of 1588; and of the Fantasia in four parts from the Psalmes, songs, and sonnets of 1611.

When it comes to the music itself, although the selection of material is interesting and varied, it does not hang together as a coherent programme. The opening track illustrates the problem of the disc in microcosm. The maiden’s song is an episodic piece that does not seem to be a natural overture. M. Ho plays it on the organ, and the occasional density of the passage work and chords in the left hand suggests that the piece is better suited to a harpsichord. He begins it stridently, and changes registration for each of the eight variations, but these new registrations do not assist the continuity of Byrd’s rhetorical flow, with the result that the interpretation of the piece overall seems choppy and a bit disjointed, and the impression of the programme as a whole reflects these qualities. The problem is not so much in the selection of pieces, though more pavans and galliards would not have gone amiss; nor in the sequence, though there is a central block of variational pieces followed by another block of discursive pieces, and these pieces in the two central blocks could have been shuffled to greater effect. It is in the interpretation of individual pieces where the problem inherent in this recording seems to abide.

The playing of the individual pieces is competent enough, but does not manage to be engaging. Walsingham itself, the title track, could be interpreted as expressing internal turmoil, wherein Byrd exploits differences of tempo, texture and figuration in a virtuoso manner: for instance, in one pair of variations 15 and 16, the first of the pair begins in duple time, then changes to triple time halfway through; then the following variation begins with triple time in the right hand and simultaneous duple time in the left. Also, the final three variations 20-22 form one of the most emotional climaxes that Byrd ever wrote for the keyboard. Capably though M. Ho plays the piece, the tensions within the piece are never exploited in his interpretation, which is not bland, but is hardly gripping either. Similarly, M. Ho’s Ut re mi fa sol la makes far less impact than Moroney’s penetrating recording in an ungrateful acoustic. Shorter pieces such as Byrd’s own arrangement of Parson’s In nomine and the far more familiar Queen’s alman seem shouty, while the Fantasia in A, Byrd’s first masterpiece for keyboard and a musical wonderland of opposites magically contrived to dwell in harmony one with another, is also a missed opportunity. The rest of the pieces are all well enough chosen and capably played, but none of the performances catch fire or shine a light on adjacent pieces, so the overall impression is of worthiness rather than inspiration. On a positive note, it was a good decision to commission the notes on the music from Dennis Collins: they are concise and excellent.

Finally, I have issues with all three (sic) transcriptions of pieces by Byrd included on this disc. There is only one source for Susanna fair yet in the repeated passage that concludes the work, M. Ho flattens the E in the “alto” part to create a C minor chord, which contradicts the unique source and also the sharpened Fs at the same point in Byrd’s original versions, which are set a tone higher, for five-part choir and for voice and viols. This seems contrary and unnecessary. Similarly in bar 21 of the Fantasia he flattens the second E (a minim) in the “treble” part, contrary to the lone original source of the keyboard transcription and the printed version for consort, which leave the note naturalized like the first E (a crotchet). This is regrettable since in the opinion of Oliver Neighbour (supported by Alan Brown) the transcription for keyboard, undoubtedly by Byrd’s pupil Thomas Tomkins, is of an early version, c. 1590, of the Fantasia subsequently published with a few slight differences (though not in this instance) in 1611, as noted above. The disc concludes with a modern transcription, presumably by M. Ho himself, of Byrd’s Memento salutis auctor in three parts from his first book of Gradualia, 1605. Why? It is certainly a most agreeable piece, and seems to be relatively popular on Continental Europe because the first commercial recording, even before The Cardinall’s Musick’s Byrd Edition, was by a Spanish choir; but it was neither composed for keyboard by Byrd nor arranged by one of his contemporaries, and with a repertory of a hundred pieces for keyboard by Byrd from which to choose, plus half a dozen contemporary keyboard arrangements of his vocal or consort music still awaiting a commercial recording, one of these, especially from among the latter, would have been preferable to a work with no provenance for keyboard.

Richard Turbet

1 Comments

  1. I have a correction to make in my review. The recording of Tomkins’ arrangement for keyboard of Byrd’s fantasia for viols a4 from his Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets  of 1611 is not a premiere. It was first commercially recorded by Glen Wilson on “William Byrd: Complete Fantasias for Harpsichord”, Naxos 8.572433, released in 2011.

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