The English renaissance is fairly well-trodden ground
for recordings these days, but it was an era of such tremendous fecundity
that there is still much of interest to be explored. Strangely, it is
the secular music that has perhaps been less recorded than the sacred
choral repertoire. Of the keyboard music of that great era, collections
such as the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Book or the huge Byrd
collection in My Ladye Neville's Book have become well known.
This interesting disc by Derek Adlam explores some of the major keyboard
works of two composers whose reputation has not become quite so great
as that of the Byrds or the Dowlands. John Bull and Giles Farnaby are,
however, probably the most innovative of the keyboard composers of their
time. Both specialist composers of keyboard music they managed to extend
the existing genres of their era and explore domestic keyboard music
in all its guises without ever loosing the sense of spectacle which
makes this repertoire so enjoyable to listen to. John Bull, in particular,
is a composer well worth exploration, and this disc starts with what
must rate as one of the most remarkable keyboard compositions before
the time of Bach - Bull's giant fantasy variations on the popular tune
As I went to Walsingham. This little ditty was quite frequently
used as a keyboard model, but never to the extent that Bull manages.
Adlam takes nearly 20 minutes at no sluggish tempo to perform this masterpiece.
In it, Bull contrives to subject his material to every possible ornamental
device using the practice of division writing; replacing slower
moving note values with strings of ever shorter notes. The technical
skill is undeniable, but the arrangement of the 30 variations provides
a large scale formal structure of great grandeur. Adlam's pacing and
sense of the unfolding of the architecture is very convincing.
The other large scale works of John Bull are better
known; the Fantasy on Ut re me fa sol la uses a simple scale
as the main musical material while the In Nomine IX uses a fragment
of plainsong from the Benedictus section of a mass by Taverner. This
work is written in the odd time of 11/4 - an irregularity which, combined
with the dazzling technical writing, makes the work hugely enjoyable.
These are performed on stringed instruments from Derek Adlam's own workshop,
tuned in expressive unequal temperaments. This does give an unsettling
effect when first heard; there is a sense of parts being simply 'out
of tune' and yet it must be understood that this variation in tuning
is all part of the colourful world of this repertoire which we loose
if we render everything into the equal temperament of the modern piano.
Tracks 2-4 use a small organ, of the type that would have accompanied
the choir in a large church, for performance of another Bull In Nomine
and a Salvator Mundi, the type of music that could have filled
parts of the service in church as well as being suitable for domestic
use. The organ is tuned in a different temperament to the harpsichord
creating a somewhat uncomfortable shift between tracks 1 and 2, but
the ear soon acclimatises to the different flavour.
Giles Farnaby was the same age as Bull, but his training
and career were very different. He was largely self taught as a musician,
being a joiner by trade. It is possible that he was a builder of keyboard
instruments. He may have been a pupil of Bull at some stage, and is
probably no coincidence that Farnaby was admitted Bachelor of Music
in the University of Oxford the same day in 1592 that Bull became Doctor
of Music in the same university. Derek Adlam's booklet notes speak in
slightly disparaging vein about the talent of Farnaby, alleging that
his "skill as a composer is limited, and his technical gifts slight"
but then declares that "his variations on the tune Woody-cock
are one of the best of all sets of English keyboard variations..." Farnaby's
output may have been less than that of Bull or Byrd, but to criticise
him for not sounding like either of those masters seems strange. Indeed,
Adlam's performance of the Woody-cock variations shows no sign
of his not being convinced of Farnaby's gifts. There is a broad nobility
in the pace and a generous shaping of the phrases and cadences that
allows the essential grandeur of the simple tune to come across. Similarly
the virtuoso performances of Kempe's Morris and The King's
Hunt employing a muselar virginals (an instrument with the
strings plucked close to their ends, giving a characteristic flutey
sound) with rattling metal hooks attached to the bass strings in the
former, show the sense of verve that infuses a lot of Farnaby's music.
Obviously Adlam has spent many years with this repertoire and is well
versed in the subtleties that bring out its more human side. It has
often been suggested that it is humanity which is lacking from this
technically demanding music, but in the hands of a sensitive performer
with intimate knowledge of the instruments for which the music was written
there is plenty to enjoy in this delicate, yet never lightweight, repertoire.