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William BYRD (c.1540–1623)
One Byrde in Hande
Prelude, Musica Britannica (MB) 12 [0:50]
Fantasia, MB13 [8:32]
Prelude, MB1 [0:45]
Ground, MB9 [3:41]
Ground, MB43 [2:44]
Pavan and Galliard, MB16:
Pavan [4:19]
Galliard [1:21]
Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, MB64 [7:32]
Ut, mi, re, MB65 [5:42]
Fantasia, MB62 [7:49]
Lachrymę Pavan, MB54 [5:06]
Prelude, MB24 [1:07]
Fantasia, MB25 [6:06]
The Bells, MB38 [6:21]
Richard Egarr (harpsichord: Joel Katzman [Amsterdam, 1991] after Ruckers [1638])
rec. De Doopsgezinde Gemeente, Haarlem, Holland, 18–20 January 2017. DDD.
Pitch: a' = 393Hz; Temperament: quarter-comma meantone
Reviewed as 24/192 download with pdf booklet from linnrecords.com.
LINN CKD518 [62:59]

Regular readers may be accustomed to my reviewing Linn recordings from hyperion-records.com, but that arrangement ceased when Linn joined the Outhere group of labels, leaving me with only inferior low-bit mp3 press previews from Outhere until I renewed direct access to Linn. The Hyperion downloads of Linn recordings were always the same price as Linn’s own – mp3 for £8, 16-bit for £12 and 24-bit for £15 – but the advantage of downloading from Linn means the added availability of 24/192 for the same price as 24/96.

That makes for a large file, in this case 2.51GB, so if you go for 24/192 you will need plenty of spare space on your hard drive – I’m currently finding a 5TB external drive and a 4TB backup filling rapidly. The current edition of the Linn download manager, however, is pretty fast in downloading even such large files: with my standard home broadband the speed is around 1MB/second and with my 4G mobile wi-fi better still, though just one download takes a large chunk out of my 8GB monthly allowance.

For those still fearful of launching into downloads, Linn recordings remain available on CD for around £12.50, though the discontinuation of SACD by this label – and most others1 – means that downloading is the only way to obtain better-than-CD quality.

Richard Egarr’s new release of Byrde’s keyboard music is especially welcome. There are not too many competitor recordings for most of these pieces and some of those are download only or recorded on the organ. Not that I have any objection to Byrd on the organ – in some respects I might have preferred Egarr to have given us a mixed recital on both keyboard instruments, as Davitt Moroney does on his definitive multi-CD programme (Hyperion – see below).

As it is, the nearest rival to the new release comes from Glenn Wilson, also on a copy of a Ruckers harpsichord (Naxos 8.572433 – review ). Just over half the works on each recital are common to both. Both contain some very fine playing; the Naxos offers slightly more music and at budget-price but isn’t available in anything higher than 16-bit CD quality. Another recital entitled Pescodd Time, recorded in 2005 by Bertrand Cuiller, on Alpha319, is complementary to both: it offers mostly a different selection of Byrd’s music, together with music by his contemporaries John Bull and Peter Philips, at mid-price. (Stream from Naxos Music Library from the original release, Alpha086).

Don’t expect Byrd’s keyboard music to sound thin and tinkly, especially in the hands of Richard Egarr, benefiting from being immersed in Byrd’s vocal masterpieces in Latin and English and here making his solo debut for Linn. Nor should you expect a collection of works with unpromising titles to sound dull from Egarr or Wilson, though there’s nothing here as intriguingly titled as some of his lute pieces. Or, indeed, some of his keyboard works, such as Galiardo Mistris Marye Brownlo or Have with yow to Walsinghame.

Two of the longest works on both collections (No.64 and No.65) look at first like an exercise in tonic sol fa, with the titles Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la and Ut, mi, re.2 Wilson gives both of these a rather grand treatment, which suits the music well, though there’s also plenty to tap the feet to. Egarr moves both along more rapidly, yet without missing the dignity of the music. I like both interpretations, but I recommend that you sample both to see which you prefer.  Naxos Music Library has the Wilson – here – and Linn offer short samples of the Egarr – here.

Both play on modern versions of Ruckers instruments and both employ quarter mean-tone temperament. Wilson’s instrument is tuned to a slightly higher pitch (415Hz) but both instruments have a rounded sound. It is, of course, possible to play the music of this period on the virginals, a more intimate sound, but I enjoyed hearing both these harpsichord recitals.

Choice between two such fine sets of performances is almost impossible. If you prefer the music to sound more dance-like, enjoy the slightly deeper sound of 393Hz, or must have Linn’s very fine 24-bit recording, the new Egarr will be mandatory. If price is more of a consideration, Wilson for around £7 on CD or around £5 as a lossless download in more than decent quality will be your better choice. What eventually persuades me to make the new recording my top recommendation is the final piece, The Bells. Was this, I wonder, Purcell’s inspiration for his ‘bell’ anthem?

For once, Egarr gives this remarkable work a little more time to develop than rival recordings, such as Davitt Moroney’s, though the difference in practice is hardly noticeable (Hyperion CDA66558 – DL Roundup October 2010 – download only, or 7-CD set CDS66551/7 – review ). I can’t pass by the Moroney performances on a variety of keyboard instruments, however, without adding my recommendation for serious students of Byrd’s music: this is a spectacular achievement and I’m sorry to see that only a few copies remain of the CD set, though it will still be available to download from hyperion-records.co.uk, complete with the massive booklet, for just £30.

If you want the full panoply of Byrd’s keyboard music, £30 is very little to lay out for the Hyperion edition. Otherwise use the criteria I set out above to choose between Egarr and Wilson for a single-CD recording. All three offer very fine performances, well recorded, especially so in the case of the new Linn in 24-bit garb.

1 Worthy exceptions from BIS (all recent releases) and Chandos (most recent releases).  Bothg also offer surround-osound downloads of their most recent offerings.

2 Ut being the original name for the note do[h].

Brian Wilson


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