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The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book - Volume 1
Pieter-Jan Belder (harpsichord)
rec. Netherlands, September 2010
Full track-list at end of review
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94303 [73.14 + 72.23] 

Experience Classicsonline



I’ve never been keen on the idea that the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book was copied by one Francis Treggian whilst he was an incumbent of the Fleet prison as a recusant. The fact is however that these almost 300 pieces constitute the finest collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean keyboard works in existence and that a high proportion of them are by known Roman Catholic sympathisers.
 
There have been several discs of a selection of pieces attempting to paint a general view of the collection. Christopher Hogwood recorded a double album of many of them - possibly all, I can’t now recall - back in the mid-1980s. This double CD set is said to be Volume 1. If Brilliant are to record each of the pieces then we are in for quite a few volumes.
 
The work that opens Disc 1 also opens the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book itself. It is the longest piece of Elizabethan Keyboard Music known: Bull’s Walsingham Variations. It clocks in at over fifteen minutes and if all of the repeats, as in the manuscript, were observed it becomes a little mind-boggling. This is almost certainly the 450th anniversary of the composer’s birth so it’s apt that such a fine performance should hit our shops. The melody is a simple folk song As I went to Walsingham. It is subject to a remarkable process consisting of thirty variations on the memorable theme; fifteen minutes of solid A minor/major. It allows show-off Bull to indulge in some tremendous musical and technical challenges such as the extraordinary cross-rhythms of variations 20 and 21 and the cross-handed variation 28. Bull has created an architectonic masterpiece of sustained thought, breadth of mood, profusion of decorative devices and massive proportion of form. This is a tighter and quicker performance than that by Kathryn Cok on Dr. Bull’s Jewel (Lyrichord LEMS 8060). Cok’s collection is entirely devoted to John Bull who, incidentally started life as organist of Hereford Cathedral. He was then been summoned back to the Chapel Royal where he had trained as a boy, becoming known among the highest rank of courtiers. After this he disappeared off to Holland around 1613 when he was about 50. Significantly, in the context of this piece, he may well have been a spy for Sir Francis Walsingham in the 1580s. After all, the popular phrase of the time, “Sing Walsingham for England and the Queen” - and this work - could be as fine a dedication to the man as Bull thought possible.
 
I have no intention of analysing all of the thirty-five pieces recorded on these two discs in this way but I will pick out a few more highlights.
 
Related to Variation technique was the Fantasia. Although freer it tended to re-use earlier material during its progress. The next track in such a form is by Giles Farnaby who is well represented in the manuscript by all sorts of pieces. There are eight Fantasias for a start. The example here grows in excitement and pyrotechnics. Again I prefer Pieter-Jan Belder to another, rather measured version by Glen Wilson on Naxos (8.570025). There are five other Farnaby pieces on Belder’s double album and none of them dull.
 
Another form found in the book is the linked Pavan and Galliard, the former calm and sustained the latter livelier but using similar material. What makes the next tracks intriguing is that we have the Pipers Pavan and Galliard but by different composers - Martin Peerson and John Bull. The melody had come from Dowland’s 1597 collection as the song ‘Can she excuse my wrongs’ but also from a 1604 collection under the title ‘Captain Diggorie Piper his Galliard’. Oddly, the Bull galliard is very close to Dowland’s original but Peerson’s is only loosely based on it. Even the memorable rising phrase at the opening is never convincingly used. The book contains other dances like the Courant. There is one here by Byrd. Jigs appear also; there is a Spagnoletta by Farnaby on CD 2 all in compound time. No less than fifty-five pieces by him are included in the book.
 
The discs include three In Nomine settings by John Bull. This plainsong fragment is found in John Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi trinitas. Although composed in the 1520s the In Nomine section of the Benedictus was still used as a compositional didactic exercise. Examples of it can be found in pieces written for viol consort and keyboard. The longest of the three In Nomines (CXIX) is the most remarkable. It is exciting and full of complex rhythms, syncopations and imitative counterpoint - quite a tour de force. The other two are shorter but certainly no less complex with passages of three against two, for instance. These pieces make me realise yet again that Bull is not only a fine composer but also a figure of national importance: just listen to the so-called Fantastic Galliard.
 
Variations on folk melodies or popular tunes of the time are also to be discovered on these CDs. The Leaves be Green is otherwise known as Browning. Many composers, not least Byrd, set it with variations. There is a rather stolid setting here by the Norwich-based musician William Inglot. It has twelve variants. It’s worth searching out a Signum disc, by the by, of wonderful transcriptions for mixed consort of pieces from the Virginal Book by Charivari Agréable (Signum CD009). This Inglot piece is played there. John Munday, who was also a madrigal composer, is represented by several works based on simple folk melodies. We have here his Goe from my Window which is subject to eight variants. It follows the normal procedure of increasing in semiquaver work as it goes on. For this reason many pieces have to start incredibly slowly so as to accommodate the fast finger-work needed later and to keep the tempo even.
 
The otherwise excellent booklet notes by Greg Holt do not clearly highlight this but there are also descriptive pieces here. These include the justly famous The King’s Hunt by Bull - also on the Signum disc mentioned above. The King’s Hunt by Farnaby is interesting but nowhere near as arresting as the Bull. Peerson’s Fall of a Leaf is taken rather briskly by Belder. Byrd’s The Bells is a set of variations in nine sections based on a harmonic pattern - a Ground in effect.
 
So the Ground is another form found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Here a bass or harmonic pattern is repeated many times over with all sorts of stuff going on around it. Thomas Tomkins was organist of Worcester Cathedral. His monument is still extant: he was a pupil of John Bull. The Ground by him that concludes the first CD iterates forty-six times and consists of just two bars. Oddly enough it starts in the treble voice and migrates between the hands. It is certainly a challenge technically with many passages in dreaded double thirds in the left hand. Others fall into complex triplet patterns. There is an even neater performance of this terrific piece on a disc of excerpts from the book by Zsuzsa Pertis (White label HRC 079). Even more extravert and brilliant is Tomkins’ eight variations on Barafostus’ Dream on CD 2

There also settings of what one can be termed ‘art songs’ by continental composers. Examples include Lassus, Striggio and Giulio Caccini whose Amarylli was set as some variations by Peter Philips. He, like Bull, worked in the Low Countries. Francis Treggian may well have met them whilst a young man escaping from the worst calumnies of Elizabeth I’s reign.
 
Finally I should just mention the many examples of the Praeludium and the Toccatas in the manuscript. Perhaps they are the same kind of piece: flashy opening gambits, as it were, to other pieces. Bull’s Praeludium seems to lead effortlessly into the shorter In Nomine. Picchi’s Toccata which he did not publish in his 1621 collection is not known in any other source.
 
There are four harpsichords in use for this recording, three of which are described as ‘after Ruckers’. There’s also and one after an Italian model which seems to be a tad brighter. Otherwise, to my ears, I can tell little difference. I cannot find any logic behind why a particular instrument was chosen for a particular piece. My personal preference is for Cornelis Bom instrument which plays on most of CD 1. If you think that certain passages sound a little out of tune then this is because they include a plethora of sharps. Even G and D sharp can sound wrong. We are dealing here with instruments tuned to mean tone which I will not attempt to explain now.
 
I followed each of the pieces through with the score and was impressed by Pierre-Jan Belder’s honesty to the notation. I also liked his use rubato and his never ostentatious ornamentation. He is a veteran of the recording studio with, apparently over one hundred discs to his name despite the fact that he is a mere 46.
 
So, a propitious start and I look forward, as I hope you do, to the next volume in the series.
 
Gary Higginson 
 
Track-listing 
CD 1
1. John Bull (1562-1628) Walsingham [15.52]
2. Giles Farnaby (c.1560-1644) Fantasia [5.09]
3. Martin Peerson (1572-1650) Piper’s Pavan [5.15]
4. Bull Piper’s Galliard [2.14]
5. William Byrd (1562-1542) Pavana Ph.Tr. [5:41]
6. Byrd Galliarda [1.59]
7. Peter Philips (c.1560-1628) Pavana Pagget [7.14]
8. Philips Galiarda [2.29]
9. Bull Praeludium [1.37]
10 Bull Gloria tibi trinitas (In Nomine) [2.58]
11 Giovanni Picchi (1572-1643) Toccata [4.00]
12 Farnaby Pawles Wharfe [2.18]
13 Bull (Fantastic) Pavana [6:45]
14 Bull (Fantastic) Galiarda [2:33]
15 Thomas Tomkins (1572-1626) A Grounde [7:05]  

CD 2

1. Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) Pavana [3.00]
2. William Inglot The Leaves bee Greene [3.30]
3. William Byrd (1543-1623) The Bells [6.52]
4. John Mundy (1554-1630) Goe from my window [5.08] 
5. Byrd Fantasia [5.08]
6. Byrd Coranto [.59]
7. Peter Philips (c1560-1628) Amarilli di Julio Romano [3.30]
8. Giles Farnaby (c.1560-1644) The old Spagnoletta [1.00]
9. Farnaby Pavana [6.53]
10 Anon Nowel’s Galliard [1.38]
11 Anon Barafostus’ Dreame [2.39]
12 Farnaby The King’s Hunt [2.25]
13 Farnaby Muscadin [1.24]
14 Nicholas Strogers (d.c.1575) Fantasia [2.54]
15 Tomkins Barafostus’ Dreame [6.05]
16 Bull In Nomine [3.19]
17 Bull The King’s Hunt [4.00]
18 Edward Johnson (1572-1601) Johnson’s Medley [3.59]
19 Bull In Nomine [6.17]
20 Peerson The Fall of the Leafe [1.18] 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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