William Byrd is one of the finest keyboard composers
ever to emerge from the fecund period of musical development in the
late 16th and early 17th centuries. Better known, during his lifetime,
as an organist and composer of masses, he also played a key role in
the development of music printing at the end of the 16th century. Byrd
helped popularise the virginal, a keyboard instrument small and simple
enough to be played in homes, and this music was collected in several
books, such as Parthenia, the printing of which Byrd may have been involved
in, My Ladye Nevells Booke, which contains 42 works by Byrd, and the
Fitzwilliam Virginal book, a vast collection of works by different composers.
The centrepiece of Byrdís keyboard music is his pavans
and galliards, though this disc contains only one of these paired dance
movements; one can only hope that Staier will be releasing a recording
of these fine works as well. This recording features a selection of
works from a variety of sources, and gives a good overview of Byrdís
music for the virginal.
Byrdís keyboard music is of four types. Fantasias,
which are improvisatory in nature, Grounds, which are developed on repeating
bass patterns, Variation sets, which are melodic variations on a theme,
and Dance movements, such as pavans and galliards. Staier gives a fine
selection of each of these forms. Callino Casturame is a simple example
of a variation set, with six variations around a melody, with increasing
complexity and ornamentation. This type of work shows off the virtuosity
of the performer, and Staier is brilliantly exuberant here.
My Ladye Nevells Ground is a 24-measure bass ground
with six variations. This is a more complex work, harmonically, and
features rhythmic variety and some chromaticism. Staier sounds a bit
confusing at times in this difficult piece, but, overall, gives a fine
performance. The fantasias are where he excels, however. The opening
Fantasia is a subtle, delicate piece, with layers of ornamentation and
a free rhythmic structure. It sounds almost like a musical discourse
as it increases gradually in phrases and melodic material. Staier masters
perfectly the subtle differences in tone and rhythm needed to make this
piece work, and, combined with an excellent sounding harpsichord, makes
this one of the most satisfying works on the disc.
This excellent disc leaves one wanting more. While
Davitt Moroneyís complete survey of Byrdís keyboard music still remains
at the summit of the discography of this great composer, one can only
hope that Staier records more of these works. His attention to detail
and subtle manner of playing make this a very satisfying recording.