From Byrd to Byrd

Friederike Chylek harpsichord
Oehms Classics OC 1702
67:24

This is the second recording by the German harpsichordist Friederike Chylek of early English keyboard music. I gave Time Stands Still a warm welcome (7 February 2017) and so I began listening to its successor with a sense of eager anticipation. The programme is built around a fascinating conceit, somewhat in the form of a rondo, featuring Byrd as fons et origo of harpsichord music, with forays into the works of his pupils and, further afield, to composers from the seventeenth century all of whom benefited from his pioneering. The disc is given a particular significance for including a rare Byrd premiere, of sorts.

The programme begins with four varied pieces by Byrd himself, beginning with The Bells. There are over twenty versions of this classic currently available, and more than one of the recent procession of releases featuring Byrd’s keyboard music have included it. Nevertheless, even a jaded palate will be stimulated by Chylek’s superb performance. I was brought up on Fritz Neumeyer’s version (on a 10” LP from 1957!) which pulled off the trick of being metronomic while allowing Byrd’s music to express how he had been inspired by the sound of pealing bells. Frau Chylek goes further, maintaining an ideal balance between the disciplined requirements of campanology, and a subtle ebb and flow as Byrd revels in the ringing. Some recordings tend to over-interpret this piece. Chylek confirms that the only requirements are the composer’s notes, allied to the performer’s momentum and sensitivity. The other three items in this opening section are Byrd’s first setting (of three) of Monsieur’s Alman; Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home – always welcome (sic) especially when played as vivaciously as this; and the Prelude in G which is the first item in the volumes of Musica Britannica devoted to the composer.

It might seem perverse to conclude what is obviously a separate section of a recording with a prelude, but in fact it leads fittingly to an anonymous setting of Dowland’s Piper’s Pavan & Galliard (MB 96/28) which is in the same key. This is followed by the disc’s significant premiere. There is an LP recording of the setting of Piper’s Galliard aka If my Complaints, played by Paul Maynard, from 1962, but this is the first version on CD, providing an interesting comparison with the anonymous setting of the same galliard that is the previous track. The attribution to Byrd in its unique source is now universally rejected (BK 103, MB 96/38) not least because yet another anonymous setting (Tuttle 26, BK 118, MB 55/20) is now regarded as likely to be by Byrd, and has been recorded as such by Davitt Moroney on his boxed set of Byrd’s complete keyboard music (Hyperion CDS44461-7) and by Aapo Hakkinen on William Byrd: Late Music for the Virginals (Alba ABCD 405) which I reviewed appreciatively for EMR (published 20 November 2017 q.v.). Although Frau Chylek makes the best possible case for the amiable setting now rejected from Byrd’s keyboard canon, it is not difficult to agree with Oliver Neighbour’s dismissal of it as “a thoroughly amateurish version” of Dowland’s galliard, even going on to call the attribution to Byrd “impertinent”. The piece is not mentioned by Martin Hoffmann in the booklet, and is described accurately and with restraint on the sleeve as “arr. attributed to Byrd”. Incidentally, according to Stephen Tuttle and pace Moroney, the now accepted anonymous setting was first attributed to Byrd as early as 1929, by Hilda Andrews in part II of the Catalogue of the King’s Music Library (London: British Museum).

We remain with Byrd for his second setting of Monsieur’s Alman which is the longest of the three (the brief third is on Hakkinen’s disc mentioned above; Neighbour was wrong to be dismissive of these settings, as Chylek and Hakkinen give thoughtful performances that answer his criticisms) before setting off for the Baroque. Here we are treated to a Suite in D by Matthew Locke from Melothesia, then a Symphony and Saraband in g by William Lawes, numbers 48-49 from Playford’s Musick’s Handmaid of 1663 (numbers 343 and 345 in the Viola da Gamba Society’s Thematic index of music for viols under William Lawes), followed by the Suite in d (Z 668) by Purcell; the subtitle of the almand “Bell-barr” refers to Bell Bar, a hamlet in the parish of North Mimms or Mymms in Hertfordshire, close to Hatfield and St Albans. Chylek’s touch in these tuneful Baroque items is as sensitive to her material as it is in the earlier pieces from the Renaissance.

And then it is back to Byrd again for three more works. The Pavan & Galliard pair “Bray” is thought to be dedicated to the expatriate Jesuit priest Fr William Bray. It is one of Byrd’s less recorded pairings in its original version for keyboard, the pavan being more likely to crop up on disc, minus its exquisite varied strains, in its arrangement for lute by Francis Cutting. The third work in this section is Byrd’s Fancy for My Lady Nevell aka Fantasia in C (BK 25) which begins with an upward scale of C major which, as I have suggested in previous reviews in EMR,echoes Byrd’s setting of the word “lux” in his motet Descendit in coelis from his second book of Cantiones sacrae 1591. Her execution of “Bray” captures the character of what is among Byrd’s more pensive, and most beautiful, pavans, while she captures the sheer tunefulness of the galliard, not least in its second strain where there is one of Byrd’s delightful sleight-of-hand key-changes towards the end. Nor is her response to what is one of Byrd’s most performed fantasias at all like the usual cavalry charge with which it can be despatched, again preferring a pensive approach to show the piece in a different light.

After this return to Byrd, we are off again, this time to his more immediate successors. First, Gibbons’ Mask: The Fairest Nymph, a miniature that transcends it miniaturity, if there be such a word. Dowland is then revisited, in two settings by Bull of Piper’s Galliard, both of them effervescent, the second like a shower of musical meteorites. Chylek abides as distantly as possible by Thurston Dart’s pronouncement – solemnly echoed by most subsequent performers and editors of this piece – that “the formidable brilliance of this setting enforces a slow tempo”, without sacrificing any musicality, a thrilling account. Morley’s very C-major Alman goes some way towards slamming the brakes on, though even here the varied strains throw caution bracingly to the winds, as the disc approaches its final item, Byrd’s Hornpipe.

In Byrd’s day the hornpipe was a dance in triple time that could be either fast or slow. It had no nautical connotations until the eighteenth century, when it seems also to have begun to be danced in quadruple time. Byrd’s piece is structurally a ground, and incorporates both the slow and, from bar 121, fast manifestations of the dance. From a staid start, Byrd subtly winds up the musical action using syncopation and varied note values, until the change of tempo at bar 121, when it seems as though some source of extra creative energy bursts forth, such as younger and more energetic dancers taking over from more mature performers, with increasing terpsichorean elation. Or so Friederike Chylek’s playing could persuade one to believe.

This disc is a luminous justification of the concept of the long-playing record and the compact disc. It is beautifully constructed on two levels. First, it provides a programme in which interesting individual pieces are juxtaposed, meaning, for example, that the listener with a penchant for Byrd can be introduced to the superb music of Matthew Locke, who was born two years before Byrd died, with which they might not be familiar. Secondly the programming is inventive and sensitive. Byrd’s Prelude in g BK 1 concludes the opening section devoted to his music but it leads decorously into an anonymous setting, in the same key, of Piper’s Pavan & Galliard by Dowland. The galliard is followed by another setting, attributed – albeit probably wrongly but nonetheless interestingly – to Byrd. Later in the programme there are two dazzling settings by Bull of the same galliard, the second an even more spectacular “variatio” of the first. There are two settings of Monsieur’s Alman by Byrd to compare, and a hornpipe by him and another by Purcell also to compare. As I mentioned at the outset, the entire programme keeps flowing from Byrd to Byrd, interspersed with forays to those who were his pupils, and further afield to those influenced by him more distantly.

The booklet’s notes are an object lesson in informed enthusiasm. It seems churlish to mention that they still give the date of Byrd’s birth as 1543 (recte 1539/40) but this can be excused in view of Martin Hoffmann’s appreciative, almost evangelistic, focus on the repertory of this recording. 

Neither the excellence of the programming nor of Dr Hoffmann’s notes would be worth much without the superlative quality of Friederike Chylek’s playing. With this recording her mere name becomes self-recommending. Her tempi are unerringly judicious, her faultless interpretations exuding profound sensitivity expressed lightly. She is aided by a fine instrument, copied by Matthias Griewisch from an original of 1624 by Ruckers. It has an almost silvery tone yet is strong when required, and depicts every note with clarity and appropriate emphasis, revealing individual lines within the more contrapuntal pieces while blending them into the totality of each piece. This is of course a compliment to Friederike Chylek’s technique.

I cannot recommend this disc too highly. Anyone familiar with some or all of these works will find them interpreted in so many new lights. It is also an ideal disc for someone setting out to discover early English keyboard music – a wonderful repertory complimented by this wonderful disc.

Richard Turbet