My Lady Nevells Booke is a collection of 42 pieces
for keyboard by William Byrd. It seems that it was compiled
for, Elizabeth Bacon, the third wife of Sir Henry Nevell but
there is some uncertainty surrounding this attribution. This
luxurious book, bound in leather and decorated with gold, contains
one of the largest groups of keyboard works by Byrd. It includes
some pieces that are found only in this book and which appear
to have been composed especially for this collection.
While many recordings of Byrd’s keyboard music
exist, there seems to be no other complete set of the works
in this book. There is one exception, of course, in the shape
of Davitt Moroney’s extraordinary Complete Keyboard Music on
Hyperion. In addition to this being a full recording of the
collection, the set benefits from the use of four outstanding
instruments by Keith Hill. They are a lautenwerk (or lute-harpsichord),
which is used on the first piece of the set, as well as a dozen
others; an Italian single manual harpsichord; and two Flemish
double-manual Ruckers copies.
It has become somewhat trendy to record English
keyboard music on multiple instruments. Moroney’s set includes
several harpsichords, muselar virginal, clavichord, chamber
organ, and organ. This gives a more varied range of colours
than a single instrument is capable of delivering, and, in most
cases, better represents the variety of instruments used at
the time. We can contrast this with Bach’s music, where the
harpsichord was the norm - though Bach probably played a clavichord
at home, and much of his music sounds excellent on that instrument.
English music of the kind found in My Lady Nevells Booke
was played on a variety of instruments. Recordings like
this therefore have the advantage not only of presenting excellent
music, but also of providing a more “authentic” experience.
This is how listeners might well have heard the music. Of course,
they would never have heard all three-and-three-quarter hours
of this music in one sitting.
As for the music itself, William Byrd’s keyboard
music is both idiomatic of his time, and unique. The very first
work in this set, My Ladye Nevels Grownde, played on lautenwerk,
is a French-like work with broken chords and attractive melodies.
Farr plays this with subtlety and detachment, letting the music
come through. The lautenwerk fits this piece very well, as it
does most of the others where it is used. Another very attractive
ground, Hughe Ashtons Grownde, sounds almost like Couperin with
its ornamentation and style brisé. The Italian harpsichord
used gives it a beautiful, almost other-worldly sound. This
piece is slow and introspective, and, again, the combination
of music, performer and instrument is nearly perfect.
Many of Byrd’s keyboard pieces are combinations
of galliards and pavans. These two-part works feature a first
movement, the pavan, which is slow and melodic, much like a
saraband. The second part is much more lively and rhythmic.
Thematically related, the pavans are generally longer than the
galliards, and one can imagine how people would dance to these
types of music, though harpsichord pieces were more for simply
playing than for accompanying dancers. Each pavan/galliard set
is played here on a single instrument, with the instruments
changing from one set to the next. Listening to just the pavans
and galliards gives an excellent introduction to Byrd’s music,
and highlights the varied colours and tones available from the
four instruments used here.
While Byrd did not write suites, as the French
or Germans did, he did produce some pieces that are relatively
long in comparison. Several pieces go over the eight- or nine-minute
mark, including the excellent Have With Yow to Walsingame, a
set of twenty-two variations. The performance here is understated,
and exploits every possible effect of the Colmar Ruckers copy
on which it is played.
So we have here an exemplary recording of great
music; Byrd was arguably England's greatest composer of music
for the keyboard. Beautiful instruments are deployed and the
sounds of all four are luscious. The sessions took place in
a fine acoustics with a hint too much reverb, but otherwise
the instruments can be heard in all their splendour. The picture
is completed by sensitive and distinctive playing. Elizabeth
Farr is an excellent performer and seems perfectly suited to
this music. I regret to say that I was unfamiliar with her before
hearing this set.
If you do not know William
Byrd’s keyboard music, you have no excuse
now. This is undoubtedly the best collection
available for its price - thank you,
Naxos. If you are familiar with this
music, you’ll certainly want this 3
CD box. Not only is it well-played and
on beautiful instruments, but it contains
all the works from Lady Nevells Booke,
the only such set available right now.
Trust me; you simply can’t go wrong
There is in fact another complete set
of My Lady Nevell's Book still
available - the classic Hogwood recording.