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William BYRD (1539/40-1623)
One Byrde in Hande
Prelude, MB12 [0:50]
Fantasia, MB13 [8:32]
Prelude, MB1 [0:45]
Ground, MB9 [3:41]
Ground, MB43 [2:44]
Pavan and Galliard, MB16 [5:40]
Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, MB64 [7:32]
Ut, mi, re, MB65 [5:42]
Fantasia, MB62 [7:49]
Lachrymae Pavan, MB54 [5:06]
Prelude, MB24 [1:07]
Fantasia, MB25 [6:06]
The bells, MB38 [6:21]
Richard Egarr (harpsichord)
rec De Doopsgezinde Gemeente, Haarlem, 2017
LINN CKD518 [62:59]

Richard Egarr plays 14 pieces on this CD selection from Byrd’s keyboard music of 127 on a Joel Katzman 1991 harpsichord after a 1638 Ruckers instrument. He begins with the Prelude in A minor, probably the earliest surviving English keyboard prelude: surviving because Byrd ensured that such a normally improvised piece should be set down to preserve a body of such music and encourage its development. Egarr brings razzmatazz to it from his treatment of the opening chord, making it flourish grandly for eight seconds, taking his cue from the semiquaver and demisemiquaver flourishes at the Prelude’s end. Inbetween comes a stately Pavan style melody. Throughout I shall be comparing Davitt Moroney who recorded all Byrd’s keyboard music from 1991-2 and 1996-7 (Hyperion CDS44461/7). Moroney’s recording on his comparable exact copy of a 1644 Ruckers harpsichord (his CD7 tr. 20) is more severe and studied: he arpeggiates the opening chord, taking one second, moving then straight to the melody and keeping it centre stage throughout, while the left-hand flourishes remain distinct. Moroney favours objectivity. Egarr conveys a rugged and burning imperative to progress the thought to its conclusion.

The Prelude also survived because it is linked to the following Fantasia in A minor (tr. 2) in its Pavan style. The Fantasia starts with, in modern terms, a first theme heard solo and then in a stream of succeeding entries woven into the texture. The mood Egarr conveys is exploratory, eager yet also decorous. After a beat’s rest the first theme is briefly treated in a higher tessitura. From Egarr this sounds like a blessing on the enterprise. The second theme (0:44) opens with three repeated notes and charts a comparable course of attaining a higher, sunnier tessitura. The piece reaches a new phase (1:50) when a one-repeated-note starter is the basis for imitation in turn in the treble and bass register while writing in two voices consolidates to three and sometimes four and then glides away into a toccata-like passage (2:49). The effect of this phase in Egarr’s hands is of a joyous flowering forth, latterly tempered a little. This concludes the first broad section. The second (3:38) begins with a clearing-the-deck flourish in the treble, the sweeping descent of which is enthusiastically repeated in the bass and all this repeated. That’s just a filler to stop the arrival of a jaunty Elizabethan pop song (3:49), its title not surviving, seeming totally alien while there is continuity in that the bass continues to latch onto the lively descents of the treble. This is also the nature of a fantasia, that the composer is free to wander. Byrd decides next (4:12) to slow things down, recalling something of the opening Pavan style. Egarr seems to go into a reverie but then quickly abandon this for Byrd’s rapid syncopated tripping (4:33) which gives way to a display of further rhythmic variations. Egarr ensures we appreciate the cleverness, but the work has managed to become rather formal again. I’d welcome something a little more convivial. Byrd and Egarr oblige with a tune skipping in semiquavers and quavers (5:36). What seems at first just supporting left-hand chords to the right-hand tune turns out on repeat to make a majestic right-hand descant to the tune transferred to the left-hand. Still you could view all this as paving the way for the final section which is in triple time (6:05). As in the first section there’s the exhilaration of reaching high tessitura, antiphonal interplay between treble and bass registers and imitation to be observed, but also the heady excitement from Egarr of an unstoppable momentum gathering from crotchets to quavers to semiquavers and, in the coda, only calming at the final chord. You come away marvelling at the wholeness of the work, disturbed by its sheer variety.

Moroney plays the Fantasia on a copy after a 1679 Couchet harpsichord. His overall timing at 8:05 is slightly faster than Egarr’s 8:32 but the difference is not striking. As it happens, while Moroney’s opening is cleanly articulated it has a more formal and reflective feel. The high tessitura passages gleam without quite conveying, as Egarr does, beneficence. However, Moroney’s new phase of the first section, because sober before, has a notably sudden carefree, skipping quality and he brings, to advantage, more pep to the toccata style passage. On the other hand, his second section opening and the arrival of the pop song, while crisply realized, don’t in turn immediately draw your attention and have the fresh sense of abandon Egarr brings. Later, Egarr’s syncopations are more spicily emphatic. Later still, Moroney sophisticatedly characterises the skipping tune in a lightly sparkling manner setting up a vivacious closing section, even if not quite as heady as Egarr’s.

The Prelude in G minor appeared in Parthenia (c. 1612), the first engraved keyboard music in England. It’s a terse yet imposing piece. Egarr displays it as confidently crafted, with an imperious rise at mid-point and a calm yet stately descent at its close. A little faster, 0:40 against Egarr’s 0:45, Moroney is more ostentatiously magisterial, yet perhaps with a touch of a peremptory dismissal thrown in. Egarr has more gravity.

Egarr pairs the Prelude with Byrd’s Ground in G minor (tr. 4). The ground, the bass part, comprises eight notes in two phrases; within each phrase three of the four notes are identical. This makes a hefty foundation for the main interest, the melodic and contrapuntal delights Byrd weaves above it. What begins as a fairly robust imitative decoration in the upper parts grows more lively (0:42), with the introduction of dotted rhythms and then really takes flight with rising and falling scales (1:16) in the right and then left hand. A sense of greater relaxation and freedom follows when, in modern terms, the time signature changes from 3/2 to 9/4 (1:40), at first smoothly enough in flowing crotchets but before long (2:13) in cascades of descending and rising quavers. Egarr’s playing achieves an equipoise between decorum and gaiety, so much so that it’s often hard to think of this piece being in a minor key. There is a coda (3:00) which takes us back to something like the formality of the beginning but the high tessitura gleams triumphantly. Moroney plays the Ground on an exact copy of a 1644 Ruckers harpsichord and, while his tempo is more stately at 4:18, compared to Egarr’s 3:41, the effect is more commanding owing to his instrument’s brighter tone. Moroney etches a precisely delineated dance, such that the dotted rhythms are experienced as an ongoing variation rather than, as with Egarr, a suddenly livelier manner and the same applies to the later rhythmic changes. Moroney effects these with glittering precision but the picture conjured, especially in the slower passages at the beginning and end, is of finely honed automatons. Egarr’s instrument and dancers have the heft of credible bodies.

Egarr next plays a Ground in C major (tr. 5). It, too, comprises eight notes in two phrases, but what’s identical here is the last three notes of each phrase. Byrd exploits the stability but avoids monotony by hiding the ground in various ‘voices’, for example its first repeat has the first phrase in the treble and second in the bass. This robust ground is briefer and arguably more dazzling in its changing effects. Egarr reaches a celebratory manner come the high tessitura at 0:30 and thereafter emphatically showcases dotted rhythms from 0:58, snappy syncopation from 1:09, catchier dotted rhythms from 1:14, four-quaver ascents from 1:21 and running quaver passages from 1:34. The coda briefly recalls the beginning but focusses more on an ostentatious ending. Moroney plays this ground on a 1981 Ahrend organ after 17th century North German models. This makes the ground itself beefier but the parade of rhythmic variations less apparent, bringing more of a bucolic quality but considerably less sparkle. The running quavers almost seem to lurch around the weightier sustained notes.

Next Egarr plays the Pavan and Galliard in A minor, no. 3 (tr. 6), a favourite piece he writes in his booklet notes, whose quality he wants to showcase despite doubts about its authenticity. But these were dispelled by the discovery of a second source in the Lincolnshire Friskney Parish Register documented in 1985 whose ornaments are incorporated in the latest, 1999 Musica Britannica edition. In any case Egarr reveals a work which rewards alert listening. It begins in flowing gentle gravity, but even in its opening section rises with a dignified illumination and then glories in the unexpected freedom of a burst of semiquaver runs, as if to say the interest is as much in the possibilities the dance suggests as what can physically be danced. This section’s second part (0:44) gracefully furthers this flowing manner with delicacy even in the abundant semiquaver runs in Egarr’s hands. The second section (1:29) returns to the character of the beginning but at a higher, both more luminous and fulfilled, rise of tessitura. The first part of the third section (2:51), with Egarr lucidly revealing its intricate cross rhythms, seems a study in the articulation of benign affirmation which the second part decorously confirms with luxuriant embellishment. The first section of the galliard (tr. 7) is a confident, quick rise to high tessitura and then smooth descent, its second part emphasising the brilliance of its added accompanying continuous quaver runs. These are also to be found increasing the chutzpah in the second section (0:25) which has an even more breezily flourishing manner and in the final section (0:49) which increases the dynamism through liberal jazzy syncopation heartily relished by Egarr.

Moroney plays this Pavan and Galliard on a muselar virginal copy after a 1650 Couchet. This has attractive directness but lacks the mellowness of Egarr’s larger instrument which aids more nuanced playing, that seems to me at the opening to have an underlying melancholy. Yet, to return to Moroney, there’s something ineffably sad in his shaping of the rise and fall of the melody in the second part of the first section. In the second section he reverences the melody more than Egarr, but at some cost of showing, as Egarr does, how it’s different from the first. Moroney’s third section has an appreciable sense of direction, yet its outcome seems more objectively cogitated than Egarr’s more apparent search after fulfilment. Moroney’s Galliard is snazzy but doesn’t have Egarr’s sheer zest, which is not just confident but glorying in its confidence.

In Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la (tr. 8) you are presented with what Egarr calls a ‘brain-teaser’. Identify the seventeen statements of the theme and be comfortingly aware of them, but can you avoid being mesmerized by the melodic and rhythmic invention Byrd weaves around them? The title refers to the hexachord, the six-note ascending scale presented in sustained notes. Every statement has this and then, after a rest which varies in length, the six notes return as a descending scale. They come in different parts of a four-part texture and at different pitches. Here’s a few examples to enhance listening. After a rich introduction to set the tone the first statement comes in the treble part at 0:29 starting on G: a warm, smiling ascent, rest and descent from Egarr. At 0:54 the second statement is also in the treble but appears a fourth lower, starting on D. At 1:22 the third statement starts in the tenor part on middle C but then moves to, and stays in, the alto part from the note F. Yes, the piece and Egarr’s playing teems with sleight-of-hand. During this statement the strength of imitative counterpoint and ornamentation more-or-less masks the theme. A particularly striking statement is the ninth (4:00) in the minor key which is like suddenly venturing into alien territory before the sunny glaze of the tenth statement (4:27). At statement 13 (5:26) a swinging triple time section begins, in modern terms the time signature changes from 4/2 to 12/4 and in statement 15 the introduction of running quavers from 6:20 creates a period of intense animation after which the startlingly unexpected contrast of a stable final statement recalls the richness of the beginning.

Moroney returns to the Ahrend organ earlier mentioned for this piece and adopts a slightly slower pace, 8:28 against Egarr’s 7:32. This and exploiting changes of registration possible on the organ makes the theme clearer and more glowing but the other features less distinct. Yet in statement 3 the counterpoint dominates the theme even more than from Egarr’s harpsichord. On the other hand, at statement 7 the theme blazes forth. Statement 9, being more powerfully delivered, is now like a vision of terror and statement 10 a triumphant deliverance. But the more finicky detail of the opposition and then conformity between theme and accompanying quavers in statements 11 and 12 aren’t as neatly apparent as on Egarr’s harpsichord. The triple time section has less swing and there’s no excitement, as there is with Egarr, of the sense of increasing animation. Moroney’s close is massively grand but oddly doesn’t seem to look back, weakening a sense of finality.

In Ut, mi, re (tr. 9), Byrd’s other hexachord fantasia, the rising 6 notes have notes a third higher inserted between them, easiest to hear in statement 2 of the theme where the rise runs from 0:26 to 0:32 and the corresponding descent from 0:37 to 0:43. Egarr calls this piece “an extraordinarily dense, complex and exhausting mind game” so you might understand it more the more you listen! Egarr displays it with a resolute rhythmic thrust contrasted at times with surprising melodic sweetness, notably in statement 4 (1:19). An easy statement to comprehend is number 5 (1:41) where the theme in the treble is counterpointed by running quavers at first in one and gradually three lower parts. Even here you’ll notice ornamentation as an added spice. By statement 6 (2:02) the texture is always a thicker four parts, but relieved by semiquaver runs in the treble which then alternate between bass in statement 7 (2:24) and treble in statement 8 (2:48). Calm is restored at statement 9 (3:12), a haven of the melodious serenity of contented imitation. But in statement 10 (3:44) the focus shifts to catchy cross rhythms and so continues until statement 12 (4:35) offers the diversion of running quavers in the bass, transferring to the treble in variation 13 (4:54) until the statement 14 coda (5:11) when Egarr gathers everything together in definitive splendour. It’s well performed but, unlike Ut, re, mi I wait to be convinced the substance is worth the effort. More listening maybe …

Moroney’s approach on the Ahrend organ is more measured, 7:51 against Egarr’s 5:42. Is this an advantage? As with Ut, re, mi the theme, exploiting changes of registration, is clearer but the counterpoint murkier. Appreciating Egarr’s rhythmic dynamism, I found Moroney’s reflection rather laboured and the semiquaver runs lacking in excitement. Statement 9, so delightfully tranquil from Egarr, sounds bloated in the imperious organ registration. Moroney’s running quavers against the theme in statements 12 and 13 are, however, refreshingly neatly done and the coda goes out with all guns blazing.

The Fantasia in G no. 2 (tr. 10) is a journey from abstract rumination to dancing spree. There’s an unusually extended treatment of its first two themes. The first is a nine note one, of which six are the key note G. Twelve entries are spaced across the parts, for instance the first at the opening in the treble in the left hand, the second (0:08), a fifth higher in the treble in the right hand, the third (0:13) a fifth lower in the tenor, the fourth (0:21) in the bass an octave lower. Egarr presents this as a methodical, untroubled progress. The second theme (easiest to hear in the treble from 1:37 to 1:45) is freer. Egarr gets across a sense of suddenly being able to roam a little. The third theme (3:20) is a brisk trot of imitation at first between alto and treble parts, but soon all get involved. The fourth theme (3:57), first heard in the alto, swarming with ornamentation, has the manner of a hearty fanfare. The fifth theme (4:31) is all elation: a rising scale begun in the treble, soon started again by the tenor, finished by the alto, then cheekily modified by the bass. And that’s just the start. After the earlier fantasias on this CD you might well feel all that’s needed now is a triple time section, which is just what you get (6:08), the time signature changing from 4/2 to 12/4 and the piece becoming a compendium of merrymaking through dotted rhythms, syncopation and irrepressible quaver runs but reserving semiquaver ones for the coda.

Timing at 7:19 against Egarr’s 7:49, Moroney plays this fantasia on an exact copy of a Ruckers 1644 harpsichord. At this slightly faster tempo and with the brighter, crisper tone of his instrument, his treatment of the opening theme is confident, assertive and ceremonious. His second theme, treated more broadly than Egarr, consistently maintains the ceremonial manner. His third theme has a beaming sprightliness. His fourth theme is a dazzling succession of fanfares, albeit more searing than Egarr’s simpler heartiness. His fifth theme has a similar intensity which for me is too relentless a gallop to be enjoyable the way Egarr’s is. However, the tighter rhythms in the triple time section paradoxically lead to a slight but beneficial lightening up, with the clarity yet also flow of the syncopation particularly attractive before the stunning brilliance of the quaver runs.

The Lachrymae Pavan (tr. 10) is Byrd’s keyboard reinterpretation of Dowland’s famous song ‘Flow my tears’. Egarr’s booklet notes single out two unusual features. First, that Byrd set the song a fourth higher than Dowland. Second, that he decorated it “in a very ‘busy’ manner.” These are both ploys to get away from the ‘semper dolens’ (‘always painfully’) tag that characterized Dowland. Byrd gives us something more urbane, which still reflects eloquently on the nature of sorrow. The opening clear view of the tune is as if on a bright day, while that busy decoration starts with scampering figuration in semiquaver clusters from its second phrase. After the whole song is heard its three sections are considered in more detail. In the first (0:49) the right hand is echoed by the left so continually you feel that a friendly contest is taking place. When the left hand seems to get the better semiquaver runs, the right mixes in uneven groupings with semiquavers which the left soon matches. Egarr presents all this with rounded equanimity, giving both the tune itself and the psychological hinterland to it that Byrd creates, vivid clarity. Come the searchlight on the song’s second section (1:38) the echoing left hand becomes a suavely sympathetic supporter of the right which, emboldened, goes into an unexpected extremely tripping measure (2:53), as if to relive the memory of vigorously happier times. The third section (3:14) deals expansively with the closing phrase of the song at first in sparer texture that allows the climactic top A to shine purely, quite sweetly yet also poignantly, before the repeat, with more left-hand involvement, made me reflect more widely on the nature of improvisatory fancy itself.

Moroney plays this pavan on a muselar virginal copy after a 1650 Couchet. This more intimate instrument than Egarr’s, coupled with a more measured approach – Moroney timing at 5:58 to Egarr’s 5:06 – is more coolly reflective. Egarr’s busy decoration from Moroney is transformed to exquisite, an approach in which Moroney seems to have ample time to ponder every statement and its implications. But does this overemphasize the improvisatory aspect? I felt happier with Egarr’s balance between song and improvisation. Moroney’s climax is as pure as Egarr’s but cooler, both more sorrowful and distanced, closer to Dowland, but should it be?

The Prelude in C, like that in G minor earlier on this CD, appeared in Parthenia. A cornucopia of running semiquavers exchanged between the hands and excitingly reaching high tessitura in both, supported by serene harmonies, you can think of it as an Elizabethan foretaste of ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’. Moroney plays this Prelude on a copy after a 1679 Couchet harpsichord. The initial effect is more relaxed because his instrument has a distinctively brighter upper range, so when that becomes engaged the effect is, to pursue my bumblebee analogy, more stinging. I prefer Egarr’s vivid even tone.

The Fantasia in C no. 2 (tr. 13) has as its foundation a spacious first section in which the opening theme, a rising C major scale, is heard six times and then twice inverted, as a descending C major scale (0:46). The opening theme comes from Egarr both supple and savoured. The second section (1:03) he presents like a crisp, snazzy dance but when the opening theme returns (1:40) he brings to it a meditative manner for its variation in which its first five notes are followed by an octave drop then a rising scale. A second variation (2:22) is a slower rhythmic transformation derived from the inversion of the opening theme. Egarr is astute to present this quite forthrightly as it’s the impetus to the return of the opening theme in semiquavers (2:45), getting off to a piquant start by beginning on C sharp rather than C. A bumbling theme in sequences (3:27) makes a link to a vigorous dance theme (3:41) with a head-over-heels manner that takes the original inverted theme a stage further, usually ending with a drop of a third. This is succeeded (4:07) by a grand procession of chords over left hand running semiquavers before a reversal of the hands’ roles. In the right hand it’s easier to detect that these runs are really a supercharged expanded version of the opening theme. A steadier, triumphantly clear-sighted phase begins, which announces the peroration (4:49) and during its ornamented repeat the chief earlier themes make a closing bow in a final transformation. Yet after all this splendour Egarr’s three-bar coda is a lovely soft farewell.

Moroney plays on an exact copy of a Ruckers 1644 harpsichord. A little faster, timing at 5:34 to Egarr’s 6:06, Moroney’s opening section is jollier and more preeningly assertive. His second section dance begins with some propulsive impetus but is more intent on conveying regal grandeur. A sturdy momentum is resumed with the opening theme return, albeit I prefer Egarr’s meditative approach. Yet Moroney’s robustness does suit the following variation of the five descending notes leading into a cock-a-hoop return of the opening theme in semiquavers. The theme which appears bumbling from Egarr is with Moroney crackingly imbued with the confidence of its surroundings. This is exhilarating but provides less contrast than Egarr. Moroney brings a shade more abandon to the following dance theme, but the pace set serves less well the juxtaposition of chordal procession and semiquaver runs which Egarr balances more majestically as well as clarifying the runs’ derivation from the opening theme. Moroney’s peroration is trimly authoritative yet doesn’t quite catch Egarr’s lambent triumph until Moroney’s radiant coda.

In The bells (tr. 14), to create atmosphere, to make the ringing of a peal more gradually climactic, Egarr adds to Byrd’s opening by giving us the first bell on the note C four times and then the ground, the note C followed by D, twice, before Byrd’s actual opening (0:20) of the ground bass twice and then a tenor part above. Egarr’s steady pulse first makes explicit, even mechanistic, the cross rhythms several bells can make and then the gradual making of the melody of a peal (strictly ‘change ringing’) through imitative counterpoint, this latter being the fascinating heart of the piece, whose repetitions have a mesmeric quality. The repetition of the ground creates a one note descent, the first counterpoint a three-note descent and by 1:23 there’s a lively seven-note descent in the alto part, rising to the heights of the treble part from 1:45 and combined with a three-note rising figure from 1:47. The work’s second section (2:10) features a fast peal in running quavers in the tenor part. Section 3 (2:27) offers a rising march-like figure counterbalanced by a more laid-back falling and then gliding one. Section 4 (3:03) briefly offers a raunchy rising and falling tune, section 5 (3:17) an even briefer spatter of running quavers which seem like treading water in this context because the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book copyist probably got the order wrong. The latest, 1999 revision of the Musica Britannica edition recommends sections 4 and 5 be switched to create a more logical order, which Moroney does but Egarr doesn’t. Section 6 (3:23) juxtaposes falling and rising figures whose cheekiness is enhanced by their syncopation. They work themselves up into an eleven-note undulating figure in a dotted rhythm (3:36), the most rollicking one heard, only to lull, as change ringing does, into a lower register version until section 7 (4:05) revives them in slightly more subdued manner. Section 8 (4:31) is the friskiest of all with quaver runs turning to semiquaver ones and the sound picture becoming something of a mélange of breath-taking virtuosity from Egarr. After this section 9 (5:20) is a rich, relatively sedate coda.

Moroney plays on an exact copy of a 1644 Ruckers harpsichord. He begins the work as in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book without Egarr’s added introduction. Moroney’s rich, sonorous opening section emphasises the ground and makes the contrapuntal imitation crystal clear. At a somewhat faster pace, taking 5:37 to Egarr’s 6:21, the sense of progression is firmer and the display stressed in terms of harpsichord capability, such as fast shiver-shake ornaments. You’re aware of a process and thereby a pattern produced whereas Egarr gives you more a feel of delight in the making of melody, achievement in the outcome. The fast peal of Moroney’s second section is efficient but relatively expression-free. What stands out in his third section is the gliding figure you note, more owing to its rhythmic character as syncopation than being the apex of the melody. Moroney’s playing section 5 before section 4 is more satisfactory as section 5 develops the quaver runs begun at the end of section 3 while the peppy quality of section 4 is attractively tempered straightway by the decorous blitheness of section 6. The high jinks of section 8 are presented as a harpsichord jam session rather than with Egarr, where you feel him envisioning the potential of bells, though Moroney’s section 9 coda has a pleasing sense of summation.

To sum up, this is as fine a single CD selection of Byrd’s keyboard music as you will find anywhere: it gives a good indication of its range in performances of individuality and character, delight, energy and sense of purpose. Egarr’s command of ornamentation is absolute: he makes it not a formal duty, but inventive, spicy and interesting.

Michael Greenhalgh

Previous review: Brian Wilson




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