Contrapuntal Byrd

Colin Tilney harpsichord
62:33
Music & Arts CD-1288

The steady trickle of new recordings devoted to keyboard music by Byrd continues with this fine selection from the distinguished English musician Colin Tilney who is based in Canada. In this anthology, he investigates Byrd’s copious engagement with polyphony in the varied forms in which he composed for keyboard. On the surface, Tilney surveys dances, variations, fantasias and grounds, but he makes subtle choices, in that Pavana Lachrymae  is both dance and variation, Quadran  is not only dance but also ground, and in one of its sources The seventh pavan is titled Pavana. Canon. 2. pts in one  indicating another aspect of counterpoint within the structure of a dance.

In a selection such as this, with an expressed context, there are always going to be pieces which one might wish that the executant had included. That said, Tilney’s choices from various forms all numerously represented within Byrd’s extensive oeuvre are judicious and in some cases revelatory. For instance, The maiden’s song  is one of Byrd’s least recorded works, yet by drawing attention to it in this contrapuntal context, not just as a bunch of diverting variations on a pleasant old tune, Tilney reveals what a magnificent work this is, both in its construction and effect – he rightly and helpfully draws attention in his booklet notes (in which he gives Byrd’s date of birth as 1543 rather than the now accepted 1539/40) to its “most heavenly” ending – enabling the listener to hear a perhaps unfamiliar and certainly neglected work in a new and shining light.

Tilney’s trick is to balance unhurried tempi with an intense response to each piece, so that there are no gratuitous pyrotechnics, yet the fire in his interpretations is intense. This is particularly true in another relatively neglected work, the intimidating Quadran  pavan and galliard with its jagged dissonances and rhythms which are all of a piece with Byrd’s contrapuntal vision, not one which doggedly pursues counterpoint for its own sake, but in which these harmonic and rhythmic implications are developed to produce a musical narrative or travelogue to enthral and enlighten both the player and the listener.

The two fantasias could not be better chosen to illustrate Byrd’s contrapuntal genius and Tilney’s enlightening response to it. The Fantasia in d is a work of the composer’s maturity, confident in its structure and in the distribution of melodies, rhythms and other devices among the dazzlingly moving parts of the whole. It is slightly surprising that in his booklet Tilney does not mention the possible reference to the plainsong Salve regina  thought by many (but perhaps not CT!) to shape the opening of the Fantasia in d. The Fantasia in a is an early work, Byrd’s (and arguably Europe’s) first keyboard masterpiece, and here as in some of his other fantasias for keyboards and for viols, the raging torrent of ideas and polyphonic techniques has no right at all to come together so compellingly in such a convincing whole. Tilney eschews the repeat at bars 58-61 which is also ignored by Francis Tregian in the Fitzwilliam virginal book, but is given, presumably with some authority as a pupil of Byrd, by Tomkins in the work’s other source. He also makes what feels like the longest pause on disc (there have been many recordings of this challenging tour de force) at the change of tempo in bar 129, but this seems consistent with Tilney’s vision of Byrd’s vision. Which leads to the conclusion that in their respective ways, Colin Tilney and William Byrd are both visionaries.

Richard Turbet

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