William BYRD (c. 1540 - 1623)
The Maiden’s Song [5:31]
Sir William Petre Pavan & Gaillard [7:49]
In Nomine [3:11]
Walsingham [8:32]
Susanna Fair [2:30]
The Queen’s Alman [3:27]
Fantasia in A [7:28]
Ut re mi fa sol la [7:21]
Clarifica me, Pater (111) [2:58]
My Lady Nevell’s Ground [4:45]
Fantasia in G [3:23]
Pavan in A [5:02]
Fantasia in D [4:44]
Memento salutis auctor [3:23]
Jean-Luc Ho (organ, harpsichord)
rec. 2014, L’Abbaye de Sainte-Amant-de-Boixe (Charente)
ENCELADE ECL1401 [70:14]

Amongst the impressive and prolific legacy of William Byrd, the keyboard works hold an esteemed position. Listening to this recent release from Encelade, I can understand why he is regarded by many as England's greatest composer of music for the keyboard. The sheer scope, diversity, versatility and imagination on display, in this well-chosen selection, confirm that this music is forged with the stamp of quality. It certainly makes for a compelling listen.

Byrd’s keyboard music is collected in three books: Parthenia, together with works by John Bull and Orlando Gibbons, My Ladye Nevells Booke – a collection of 42 works, compiled by the composer himself in 1591, and the Fitzwilliam Virginal book, incorporating music by several composers. The music Jean-Luc Ho has chosen for this recital derives mainly from the latter two, with Sir William Petre Pavan & Gaillard being found in Parthenia. He has selected two instruments for his performances: The Renaissance organ of L’Abbaye de Sainte-Amant-de-Boixe, and an Italian harpsichord by Ryo Yoshida (2010), after Trasuntino (1531). The alternation of organ and harpsichord for groups of pieces provides contrast and enhances interest. Both are fine-sounding instruments and showcase the ingenuity of the music and the expert skill of the performer. This is the first time I have encountered Jean-Luc Ho, and I see he has already recorded a CD of harpsichord works by Bach and Couperin on Encelade.

Ho captures the spirit of the music in these idiomatic, stylish and rhythmically potent performances. He employs an imaginative range of registrations in the works played on the organ, adding colour and diversity. Ornaments are skilfully executed, tastefully calibrated and never impede the musical flow. An example is his stunning performance of My Lady Nevell’s Ground, the opening piece of the Nevell book. It consists of six variations on a ground, each of increasing complexity as the work progresses. Walsingham, from which the album takes its name, is the longest piece here at nearly eight and a half minutes. Existing in both Fitzwilliam and Nevell, it is made up of twenty-two variations on a well-known Elizabethan song. Crisply articulated, with ornamentation emerging with pristine clarity, it is one of the many highlights of the disc. Ho allocates it to the harpsichord, the instrument he has chosen for The Queen’s Alman. Here he uses a dark, sonorous registration. In Sir William Petre Pavan & Gaillard, he makes a striking contrast between the sedate, dignified and stately 2/4 Pavan, and the more animated 3/4 Galliard, with its dotted and syncopated rhythm.

Encountering this music has been a revelation. Ho plays with commitment, resourcefulness, imaginative flair and rhythmic vitality. These are convincing interpretations, and set the bar high. The bright, resonant acoustic of L’Abbaye de Sainte-Amant-de-Boixe confers a luminous sound on the proceedings. Delineation of lines and ornamental detail is vividly captured, with both instruments being well-matched volume-wise and spatially. Well-written annotations, in French and English, briefly discuss each of the pieces. For lovers of Elizabethan keyboard music, this is a highly desirable release, and has given me a great deal of pleasure.

Stephen Greenbank