The 16th century in England was one of the most vibrant
periods for keyboard music in all of Europe. Partly because of the interest
held by the royalty in music - even Queen Elizabeth played the virginal
- this period saw a huge number of unique compositions by gifted composers.
These far outshone the production of such music in other European countries.
In France, keyboard music did not come into its own until the early
17th century, and in Germany the 18th century was the period when the
keyboard reached its apotheosis.
This set includes an overview of English music from
this period, featuring anonymous works and the music of many well-known
composers, such as William Byrd, perhaps the greatest keyboard composer
of the time, but also John Bull, Peter Philips, Orlando Gibbons and
The first disc is played on a single-manual copy of
a Ruckers harpsichord. The instrument has a fine, subtle sound, and
the recording is excellent. The works on this disc include lively pieces
by Byrd, such as La Volta, a well-known work from the Fitzwilliam Virginal
Book, a manuscript containing hundreds of works by English composers.
There are also two of Byrd's pavan/galliard pairs. According to the
practice that developed in the Elizabethan period, dances were presented
in pairs: the pavan being a slow, ceremonious piece, and the galliard
being more lively. There is a thematic relation between the two; in
some ways, the latter can be seen as a variation of the former. Byrd
wrote many such pairs, and two of them are included on this disc. William
Randall's arrangement of John Dowland's well-known Lachrimae attests
to the wide popularity of this song, which is also known in a vocal
version, Flow my tears, and Dowland's versions for viol consort. This
was one of the first "hits" in Europe, and was copied and adapted by
composers in many countries. This arrangement features a great deal
of ornamentation, and is both melancholic and intricate.
The second disc opens with a huge, gentle arpeggio
of Orlando Gibbons' Pavan in g, setting the tone for this disc, played
on a double-manual Ruckers copy. The sound is lush and rich, almost
overwhelming, and this slow, delicate piece is a fine example of Gibbons'
music. John Bull's masterful Vaulting Galliard, a short piece, at less
than 2 minutes, is a delightfully lively piece, as is Gibbons' The Italian
Ground, which is a series of variations on a simple theme, each variation
adding complexity and ornamentation. The disc closes with another pair
of works by Byrd, The Tenth Pavian: Mr. W. Peter and Galliard, which
is another fine example of the composer's genius.
Musica Omnia has come up with an original idea. Each
of its recordings contains an additional CD, called Beyond the Notes.
This is basically a presentation of the music with spoken text and musical
examples. In a way, it can be seen as liner notes with music. While
one would not want to listen to this CD many times, it is invaluable
in giving the listener a more complete approach to the music. Whether
listened to before or after hearing the music, it opens the ears to
new insights, in a way that printed liner notes cannot. Musica Omnia
deserves kudos for this idea, and it would be wonderful if other labels
picked up on it. Here, Howard Schott presents the Virginalists, and
discusses the musical tradition and repertoire of this time.
This fine recording, like many others available, gives
an overview of the music of this fertile period. But, while other discs
exist with similar selections, this one stands above them for the quality
of the performance, the excellent instruments and recording, and the
"extra" CD giving a presentation of the music and the composers. Those
interested in this period will not be disappointed, and those unfamiliar
with it will find this a perfect introduction.