The decades around 1600 were a 'golden age' in England, when it was ruled by Elizabeth I and then James I. It was a time of great composers such as John Dowland, William Byrd, Thomas Morley - to mention just a few. Music was ebing written in almost every genre; some genres can be considered typically English. In others English composers developed a kind of 'national identity'. The latter certainly goes for keyboard music: the 'virginalists' were admired and found followers on the Continent. The Dutch organist Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck is an example of a composer who incorporated elements of the English keyboard idiom into his own compositions. As a teacher he passed these influences onwards to German organists.
The largest source of English 'virginal music' is the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. How exactly it was put together is still a bit of a mystery. It was first printed in 1899 and comprises a large number of pieces by a whole array of composers, famous and less famous, even hardly-known and anonymous masters. The first collection of keyboard music ever printed in England is the subject of this disc. The publisher didn't forget to mention that on the title page: "Parthenia or The Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls". It bears no year of publication and it has been often assumed that it was printed in 1611. However, in his liner-notes Anthony Rooley writes that it is more likely that it dates from 1613. The collection was printed with a clear reason: the wedding of Elizabeth Stuart and Frederick V, Count Palatinate of the Rhine, which was to take place in February 1613. The betrothal was announced in the spring of 1612 and Rooley believes that the appearance of Parthenia must have been planned shortly after this announcement.
The collection was dedicated to Elizabeth as she was a gifted musician. In fact, the quality and technical requirements of the pieces in Parthenia suggest that she must have been a very skilled keyboard player. It comprises 21 pieces by three of the main composers of her time: William Byrd, John Bull and Orlando Gibbons. The inclusion of the Bull pieces can be easily explained. Not only was he one of the greatest keyboard players of his time, he was also the Princess's teacher. He composed an anthem for her wedding, which unfortunately has been lost.
William Byrd's reputation is largely based on his vocal oeuvre but he also wrote a considerable number of keyboard works which reflect his mastery of counterpoint. The largest collection is My Ladye Nevells Booke; the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book also includes a number of his keyboard works. All genres are represented in his keyboard oeuvre: dances, variations on popular tunes, grounds, character pieces, fantasias and preludes. Pavans and galliards figure prominently in English instrumental music of the late renaissance, and these forms are especially well represented in Parthenia.
The three composers in this collection represent three generations. Orlando Gibbons is the youngest, and was one of the main composers in the first quarter of the 17th century. It is only in 1615 that he is mentioned as one of the organists of the Chapel Royal but it seems that his connection to the court dates from about ten years earlier. It has been suggested that it was Gibbons who put this collection of keyboard pieces together. In that case the inclusion of Byrd and Bull can be regarded as his way of paying reverence to two of the most distinguished composers of previous generations.
Catalina Vicens plays various instruments which are all part of the Neumeyer-Junghanns-Tracey Collection, preserved in Bad Krozingen Castle. Its foundation was laid by the German keyboard player Fritz Neumeyer whose aim it was to collect historical instruments in playable condiction and copies of historical instruments. He and his two pupils Rolf Junghanns and Bradford Tracey frequently used them for recordings. Here Catalina Vicens plays three original instruments: an Italian harpsichord seemingly dating from around 1726, a spinettino from Naples (1st half 17th century) and a 17th-century virginal from Switzerland. The other instruments are copies: an Italian harpsichord after an anonymous original (no year mentioned), a double virginal - a so-called 'mother & child' - after a Ruckers of 1591 and a double manual harpsichord after Andreas Ruckers, 1620. Three pieces are played here in an arrangement by Simon MacHale, but the booklet omits information about the nature of these arrangements. In two pieces Rebeka Rusò plays the treble and the bass viol; again the liner-notes don't tell us why they are arranged, this time by Catalina Vicens herself.
This recording is not the first of the complete Parthenia. At least two were made previously: by Gary Cooper (Dervorguilla, 1993) and by Mary Jane Newman (Centaur, 1998). I can't compare them with the present disc as I have never heard them. I also don't know whether they are still on the market. Even so, this disc is a winner in every respect. Catalina Vicens plays brilliantly. She takes mostly rather moderate tempi, and that seems quite appropriate. She articulates well but still manages to keep the flow of the music. Her lucid style of playing results in a great transparency which allows the listener to follow the various lines of the polyphony. Accolades to the recording engineer: the sound is very natural and the miking just right. The use of various instruments of a quite different character is a bonus. Listen to the gorgeous sound of the Italian harpsichord (track 16) or the 'mother & child' virginal (track 12). Rebeka Rusò plays well in the two pieces by Gibbons, even though I would have preferred them with harpsichord alone.
All the factors mentioned above justify the labelling of this disc as Recording of the Month.
Johan van Veen