BYRD One Byrde in Hande
A joyous upwards flourish opens Richard Egarr’s Byrd recital, added by him to the beginning of a 50-second Prelude for which the composer has already written a flurry of fast notes as an ending. But if that’s the kind of thing that’s typical of Egarr’s natural keyboard exuberance, it’s surely also a sign of the particular excitement he feels when Byrd’s music is under his fingers. And if his love and respect for the composer he first got to know as a chorister is revealed clearly enough in a readable booklet note, it is no less warmly expressed in his playing throughout the course of this disc.
At first glance, the selection looks challengingly serious, consisting mainly of fantasias and grounds, with none of the variations on popular songs that make up Byrd’s more immediately appealing side. Yet Egarr has no problem keeping our attention. The sheer sound of his playing is one thing, produced on a crisp, punchy but resonant Ruckers copy, beautifully recorded by Philip Hobbs. Operating at A=393, it has a fruity bass; but Egarr also manages to make it sing sweetly in the middle and high registers thanks to a caressing legato and sure sense of when to leave certain notes held down. It may be relevant that he knew Byrd’s choral music before his keyboard music, because in lengthy fantasias that might seem rather earnest compositional exercises – how excited can you get by a title such as Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la? – he is able not only to articulate Byrd’s astonishingly resourceful counterpoint but also, in music that could sound dogged, to strike a thoroughly convincing balance between the music’s formal structures, changing moods and metres, and moments of charming spontaneity or coursing brilliance. He ends with Byrd’s most extraordinary piece, The Bells, an improbable set of variations on a two-note ground which, with even more ‘pedal wash’ effects than usual, is here turned into an affectionate tone-picture. An outstanding celebration of Byrd as one of the first keyboard greats.