Keyboard music by William Byrd
Colin Booth harpsichord and virginals
Soundboard SBCD217 Fugue State Records FSRCD013
The steady flow of distinguished discs devoted to, or featured around, Byrd’s keyboard music shows no sign of abating. This recent recording by Colin Booth is another fine contribution to the stream. Using three different instruments, it is devoted entirely to Byrd, covering all the genres in which he composed, and combining some unfamiliar pieces with some stalwarts of the Byrdian keyboard repertory.
Right from the outset, it is evident that Booth’s approach has more to do with affection for the composer’s works, rather than with storming Byrd’s barns. Lord Willoughby’s welcome home is all about Byrd’s exquisite melodies and harmonies, and his beguiling counterpoint. Booth is at pains to render all this as clearly as possible, with feeling but not with sentimentality. Another of Byrd’s “standards” The queen’s alman receives a similarly clear and more assertive performance. That said, the Third pavan and galliard could have done with a touch more of the same assertiveness, as on this occasion Booth’s restraint sells this powerful piece slightly short. But it is another pavan and galliard pairing, dedicated to Ph[ilippa] Tr[egian], that shows Booth’s thoughtful and penetrating approach at its very best, most notably in the exquisite second strain in which Byrd’s closely argued counterpoint is beautifully presented, contributing to what has a strong claim to be the finest version on disc of this familiar and particularly intense work. The performance of Byrd’s deeply felt Pavan and Galliard BK52 in d (a work which seems to have influenced Gibbons, e.g. his Pavan MB 20/16) is on the same level of interpretation: as it were, gently persuading the notes to express Byrd’s profound intentions in the Pavan, while, as in Ph. Tr., putting a spring in the step of the Galliard without setting off too explosively.
There is an expectation, always fulfilled, that Byrd’s pavans will reward both performers and listeners, so they tend consistently to be selected for recordings and concerts. Until recently grounds did not possess that cache, perhaps suspected of being no more than academic exercises. Booth turns any such assumptions on their heads with enchanting renditions of two “short” Grounds. His pacing of both works – BK 27 and especially 43 – is ideal: patient enough to elucidate Byrd’s argument through his narrative counterpoint and appetizing harmonies but crisp enough not to plod. This appreciation of what such works have to offer has extended particularly to one of Byrd’s towering masterpieces Ut re mi fa sol la and although the nature of Byrd’s writing here means that it is best served by being performed on an organ which can sustain notes in order to give continuity to the piece’s narrative and to point up Byrd’s luscious suspensions, nevertheless even on the small harpsichord which Booth selects for this piece, he brings out most of these details.
Like his pavans, Byrd’s fantasias have always been de rigueur for discs and recitals. Booth chooses two of the best known, the Praeludium and Fantasia BK 12-13 and A fancy for my Lady Nevell BK 25. BK 13 Is the earliest masterpiece of European keyboard music, a kaleidoscope of melodies, harmonies, techniques and structures, the product of a restless yet disciplined mind. Some recordings of it have been rigid, some extravagant. Booth follows the contours of Byrd’s imagination and allows the music to speak for itself yet without discarding restraint. The result is an illuminating interpretation which manages to be clear but also expressive. Incidentally Booth observes the repeat at bars 58ff. which is noted by Byrd’s pupil Tomkins in his source, but which is omitted by Tregian in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. BK 25 can also be played as a powerhouse, its opening upward octave perhaps taken from Byrd’s setting of the word “lux” in his motet Descendit de coelis from his second book of Cantiones sacrae, 1591. Booth’s considered performance is more in the spirit of the piece being played domestically than one busting any of Byrd’s blocks, but still responding to the flow of Byrd’s creativity in what is one of his most surging keyboard works. The final work on the disc, A voluntary for my Lady Nevell, can also be mentioned in the context of fantasies (in his magnum opus about Byrd’s keyboard music Oliver Neighbour contentiously regards the terms fantasy and voluntary as interchangeable) and it brings the disc to a satisfactory close, presenting an attractive case for a piece that can sometimes be made by lesser players to sound a bit dry.
It remains to mention the two sets of variations on popular tunes that Booth places centrally in this programme. The carman’s whistle is an amiable ramble through the English countryside up alongside the carman on his horse and cart, as Booth responds appropriately to Byrd’s deceptively artless commentary on the tune, in both their cases concealing a more profound response. In the magnificent John come kiss me now Booth again does Byrd proud as the composer reaches forward across the centuries with some of his bluesiest cadences. Byrd’s variations are themselves varied throughout the piece, and his creative virtuosity is reflected in Booth’s measured but committed response.
Early in this review I suggest that Booth approaches Byrd’s works with affection. It is this approach that gives rise to a fine recording that is both likeable and recommendable.