William Byrd: Keyboard Works

Stephen Farr, Taylor and Boody organ of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Resonus Classics RES10326

The distinguished and widely experienced organist Stephen Farr already has an impressive discography of early English organ music, and to this he adds the current disc of a dozen pieces most likely intended for the organ by Byrd, the quatercentenary of whose passing is being widely commemorated this year. Four of his great fantasias are interspersed with a mixture of works of comparable substance alongside some miniatures, concluding with a novelty which is, in its own way, a premiere. The great fantasia in A minor precedes two brief Misereres, the second of which has a particularly delightful conclusion. These are followed by the fantasia in C, possibly Byrd’s best-known work in the genre with its opening charge up the C major scale. After the modest Verse we are treated to Byrd’s longest fantasia, in G (BK 62) the opening point of which was later used by both Peter Philips, one of Byrd’s documented pupils, and the Flemish organist and composer Peeter Cornet. After the brief and very early Gloria tibi trinitas we encounter Byrd’s other fantasia in G (BK 63) which is in turn followed by the remarkable hexachord fantasia Ut re mi fa sol la (BK 64). The twists, turns and somersaults which Byrd applies to this basic scale are remarkable in their variety and subject to the guiding hand of his creative genius. The disc opened with a voluntary in C and, after another such work, the disc concludes with the novelty and premiere mentioned above. Keyboard intabulations of six of Byrd’s songs are known to survive, plus a single intabulation of a motet. None of the song intabulations are thought to be by Byrd himself, but recent scholarship has come to the conclusion that the intabulation of O quam gloriosum from his Cantiones sacrae of 1589 is likely to be by the composer himself, and it has been admitted to the canon of his accepted works. It has already been recorded twice on the harpsichord, but this concluding pair of tracks (one each for its two parts) is its first recording on the organ. It sounds sprightly on the harpsichord, while the organ can better sustain the notes and reflect the work’s choral origins.

It is a shame that Stephen has chosen to omit the fantasia in D, with its whisper of “Salve regina” at its outset. Some of his ornaments are distractingly elaborate, for instance in the fantasia in C, while on perhaps a slightly less elevated level of listening, in the fantasia in G (BK 62) Stephen deprives us of the thumping dissonance in bar 72 – though to be fair it occurs only in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, among the work’s four sources … but everyone else plays it! These quibbles apart, this is a fine disc of superb music well chosen to provide a rewarding and enjoyable programme, a veritable feast.

Richard Turbet

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