The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, volume 6

Pieter-Jan Belder harpsichords
Brilliant Classics 95458
2 CDs: 48’46, 74’13.

This is the penultimate disc in Pieter-Jan Belder’s admirable project recording the entire contents of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (FVB), the most voluminous source of early English keyboard music from the Tudor and Jacobean period. The manuscript’s uncertain origins and provenance have been discussed many times, most authoritatively of late by David Smith in his article “Francis Tregian the Younger as music copyist: a legend?” in Musical Times 143 (Summer 2002): 7-16. About half of this double album is given over to music by John Bull and, besides the other composers named in the disc’s subtitle, there are works by John Blitheman, Thomas Oldfield, Robert Parsons, Martin Peerson, Jehan Oystermayre, John Marchant and “Galeazzo”, possibly Galeazzo Sabatini, plus a number of anonymous works.

The attributed works on the shorter first disc are all by Bull. The previous discs in this series have tended either to be collections of works by various composers, or to be focused on one or two individuals. Both such approaches can be relished, and with this disc, we have the best of both worlds: an initial focus on Bull – which continues onto the earlier part of the second disc – followed by a miscellany of composers known and unknown to complete the contents. Belder plays modern harpsichords by Titus Crijnen and Adlam Burnett both after Ruckers (2014/1624 and 1980/1638 respectively) and a muselar of 2016 by Gerhard Boogaard after an original of 1650 by Couchet.

And so to the music itself and Belder’s interpretations. There are many anonymous works in FVB. Some such pieces are impressive, and others are not. It would be good to know the identities of all those who composed these anonymous works, but particularly those who composed the impressive ones. This is broadly illustrated on the first disc of this double album. It runs for only 48 minutes, and with one possible exception the central dozen pieces are all by Bull. They are bookended by three anonymous works at the beginning of the disc, with ten more to conclude it, and they fall into the two categories noted above: the first three works – Galiarda, Alman and Praeludium – are impressive pieces (which is of course why they were selected to begin the album) – sufficiently to make this listener want to know who composed them, particularly the fine, technically demanding and audibly Bullish Galiarda. The concluding ten obviously have to be included on what is a complete recording, but are like the fillers on old-style rock or pop LPs, which used to consist of one or two strong items plus several other less interesting tracks for padding. A few of them are at least inoffensive, and the final track, Martin sayd to his man, inexplicably picked up an attribution to Byrd during his tercentenary in 1923, in a pamphlet compiled by Gerald Cooper, who should have known better. The works by Bull vary between dances and pieces of a more ecclesiastical bent. The former all come across as very sprightly, especially the Regina Galliard, while both the Trumpet and Spanish Pavans have some pleasantly plangent moments, besides the characteristic touches – respectively military and elegant – implied by their titles. The ecclesiastical pieces sound well on the harpsichord. In Belder’s performances there is clarity and a comprehensible narrative, whereas many performances on the organ sound relentless and constipated, more of a harangue than a narrative (not difficult with Bull, to be fair) but Bull’s figurations around the cantus firmi are better suited to the harpsichord, and although an organ can sustain the cantus firmus, in practice the sustained notes can have the effect of clotting the texture. This is also true of two venerable pieces on the second disc which Belder releases from the oppression of the organ.

But first, there are eight more pieces by Bull to consider, which begin this second disc. Herein is some more variety, with jigs, fantasias on plainsong and the hexachord, and galliards. It is the hexachord fantasia Ut re mi fa sol la which most challenges Belder’s capabilities. The figuration is relentless but Belder creates his narrative by responding sensitively to Bull’s implied changes of tempo, and by knowing either when to go at the figuration like a [pun alert] bull at a gate, or when to back off, like a good improviser in a blues guitar solo, with the result that he sustains interest over the near eleven minutes of what can, in the wrong hands, be a dry or exhibitionist exercise. Speaking of which, not even Belder make much of what the listing for the sleeve and booklet call the “Misere in three parts”; significantly Belder either forgot to write about this Miserere, or his thoughts were fortuitously omitted. In any event, it is difficult to make much of a positive case for it.

The final group of pieces to be considered are those that close the second disc and which are not by Bull. A few are by composers with established reputations, such as Gibbons, Robert Johnson and Peerson who flourished in the Jacobean period, and Parsons and Blitheman whose music was originally Marian and only subsequently Elizabethan. Another clutch of composers are unknown or obscure apart from their appearances in FVB: Oystermayre, Oldfield and Sabatini; Warrack and Marchant. Allowed to give a particularly good account of themselves are Tisdall and Inglott, two known but hardly familiar names. They certainly provide the two most striking pieces from this closing group. Tisdall’s Pavana Chromatica Mrs Katherin Tregians Pavan is dignified and full of fine and unexpected harmonies; it is well structured and altogether impressive. William Inglott was the organist of Norwich then Hereford then again Norwich Cathedrals, having been a chorister at Norwich under his father Edmund. A career as a practising musician does not guarantee quality as a composer, but Inglott’s Galliard Ground is another of the outstanding pieces on this album. I participated with Michael Walsh in reconstructing his Short Service for publication (by The Early Music Company, which publishes EMR) and performance (two morning canticles can be heard on Norwich Cathedral Choir’s outstanding CD Elizabethan Church Music Priory PRCD5044), and it is a fine example of its type. Of the “name” composers, Gibbons is represented by The woods so wild which is perhaps not out of his top drawer. Belder responds to the hectic, almost aggressive, figuration especially in the quite Bullish section numbered 5 (his version is all but a minute shorter than John Toll’s on the eponymous CD, Linn CKD 125, significant in a work lasting only 4-5 minutes) amongst some more reflective moments. It depicts a different landscape from the set of variations by Byrd, albeit the older composer’s deceptively bucolic opening leads to sterner stuff. While Johnson’s two almans are delightful, Peerson’s merely comes and goes, but his The Primerose is one of the classics of the virginalist genre. Of the unknowns. Marchant’s Allemanda is the most striking, appropriately for a man who taught James I’s eldest daughter “to play upon the virginalles”, though the single anonymous piece from this section, an Alman, deserves an honourable mention. Much more than an honourable mention is required by the two most venerable pieces on this album: Parsons’ In nomine, the most popular consort work of its day, arranged for keyboard by Byrd, his successor in the Chapel Royal, and who, like Tallis, seems to have quoted Parsons’ piece in an In nomine; and Blitheman’s “In nomine”, originally the third of a sequence of six settings titled Gloria tibi trinitas (the alternative designation for the In nomine) by Blitheman in the Mulliner Book. For reasons given above, these two pieces come over very well on the harpsichord thanks to Belder, with clarity and momentum, but it also helps that, in their own spheres, they are two of the finest examples of the In nomine in the entire Tudor instrumental repertory. Meanwhile one wonders whether Byrd “heard” his arrangement as being for the virginals, or for the organ, or for either, and if the last, whether he harboured a preference.

This is another fine contribution to a well-executed project. Purchasers of the preceding albums will be amply rewarded with this release, and unless one has reservations about consuming generous helpings of Bull, it is worth the attention of anyone with an interest in the English virginalists, as it contains uniformly fine performances of many interesting and intriguing pieces, beside a few masterpieces.

Richard Turbet

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