Given its historical importance and the fact that it only takes around an hour to perform complete, it is surprising that Parthenia – published in 1613 as ‘the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls’, and celebrating the high status of English keyboard-writing of the time in 21 pieces (mostly pavans and galliards) by its three greatest masters – has not had more recordings. Colin Tilney’s Pye LP (1/69) has not been reissued, while CDs by Gary Cooper (Devorguilla) and David Ponsford (RiverRun) look hard to get (I’ve never seen either), meaning that this attractively presented debut solo recording by the Chilean-born harpsichordist Catalina Vicens is well placed to make a mark.
I hope it will. Vicens’s playing is unhurried, even in galliards, but she maintains the music’s spring and momentum through eloquently spread chords and rhythmic inflections; her timing of the tumbling flourishes that climax certain sections brings both controlled and effective releases of tension. And if you sense that her sympathies lie more with the richness and mellowness of Byrd and Gibbons than with the fidgety virtuosity of Bull, her fingers are certainly up to the task of carrying off Bull’s excitable passagework, the only hint of discomfort coming in the rampant left-hand semiquaver patterns of the St Thomas Wake Galliard.
The sound of this CD is also a treat. Vicens uses no fewer than six different original instruments or copies from the Neumeyer-Junghanns-Tracey Collection in Bad Krozingen, including a sparkily metallic Ruckers harpsichord, a sweetly bell-like Ruckers double-virginal (though its rattly ‘arpichordum’ stop is brought to bear in the disc’s final track) and a delectable little Italian 4ft ‘spinettino’. Two of the Gibbons pieces are performed in the scoring with viol ad lib proposed in a later edition, but although Rebeka Rusò adds her own fine musicianship to the mix, this is ultimately Vicens’s project, and a worthy one too.