Byrd Complete Keyboard Works
The three volumes of keyboard music added in 1950 as an afterthought to Edmund Fellowes’s edition of Byrd have only slowly made their full impact as containing one of the most remarkable and innovative repertories in the history of music. A much-needed new edition by Alan Brown (1969-71) was followed by Oliver Neighbour’s important critical study (1978), which perhaps for the first time made it absolutely clear that Byrd was not at all just another of the ‘Elizabethan Virginalists’ but stood head and shoulders above all his contemporaries – in range, in contrapuntal technique, in melodic invention and above all in formal control and imagination.
Now Davitt Moroney has completed the picture, as it were, by presenting the entire body of music on seven CDs. He has been approaching this Everest of a project for many years, in constant consultation with Brown and particularly Neighbour (who – appropriately enough – plays the ‘third hand’ for the duet Fantasia on Disc 4). In fact Moroney has previously recorded the Pavans and Galliards for Harmonia Mundi; but he has been constantly playing, teaching and thinking about the music since then. The results here are surely definitive and a triumph for all concerned – probably the most significant issue I have yet reviewed.
Moroney absolutely has the music in his hands, head and soul. There are so many glorious details in his playing that it is hard to know where to begin in its praise: with the wonderful clarity of the part-writing (many details of which had hitherto left me wondering whether the music doesn’t really sound better on the piano); with the superb energy of the playing; with the glittering virtuosity; with the ability to vary the colours and move from the ineffably light and whimsical to the seriously confrontational; with the constant delicate flexibility of his metre; or with his compelling grasp of Byrd’s often difficult formal designs.
The recordings were made over a number of years: Disc 3 in 1991 on the Ahrend organ at Toulouse; Discs 1 and 4 in 1992 at Ingatestone Hall, seat of one of Byrd’s great patrons, Lord Petre; the remainder in 1996-7 at Fontevraud. The various engineers have coped well with the different places and occasions. Six different instruments are used to vary the colour and to fit the different styles of the music. The most novel is the muselar virginal, a marvellously earthy instrument with a refreshingly noisy action. But the others are plainly chosen with loving care for the project. A harpsichord by Hubert Bedard (after Ruckers) tends to be used for the lighter pieces, while he chooses one by Reinhard von Nagel (after Couchet) for some of the more serious works. Neatly enough, the set ends with a prelude already heard on Ahrend’s Toulouse organ, now played on four different instruments in turn (omitting only the chamber organ).
Alongside all of this, Moroney has provided the longest and most detailed set of notes I have seen for any recording. The booklet runs to 200 pages of wide-ranging erudition (in English and French) including a key to the ‘BK’ numbers of the Brown edition which are used throughout his running prose. Apart from a preface and a biographical essay, disquisitions about Byrd’s organs, the best way to tune, loving descriptions of the instruments (including the paintings on his muselar virginal) and much else, he devotes an essay to each of the pieces – never less than 100 words and quite often around 1,000 words. He also includes very helpful references to Alan Brown’s edition and Oliver Neighbour’s critical study. So when you have got through the 497 minutes needed to listen to the discs, you still have several hours of reading to do. It may be a touch self-indulgent, but after performances like that he is entitled to do what he wants. Enjoy.