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Pierre ATTAINGNANT (c1494-1551) (ed.)
Harpsichord Works
Glen Wilson (harpsichord)
rec. 2018, Schüttbau, Rügheim/Unterfranken, Germany
NAXOS 8.572999 [77:03]

In 2014 the British keyboard player Terence Charlston recorded a disc devoted to French music of the renaissance and baroque periods. He performed it on a reconstruction of a clavichord, described by Marin Mersenne (review). In his liner-notes, he observed that very little keyboard music of the 16th century has come down to us. The present disc seems to contradict this as it includes harpsichord music by Pierre Attaingnant. However, the title page of this disc is a little misleading.

It suggests that the music was written by Attaingnant. However, he was not a composer but a prolific publisher of music, responsible for a large number of collections of chansons. Therefore I added "(ed)" to his name in the header, which stands for ‘editor’. Adaptations of music for a different scoring were very common in the 16th century. The present disc includes thirty pieces from six books with keyboard arrangements, which have been preserved in the Bavarian State Library in Munich. Originally there were seven such books, but one of them has been lost. The extant six books are the only copies which have survived history. Playing the music included in it is not as easy as one probably would expect. As Glen Wilson states in his liner-notes, they are nearly unplayable, as they are full of errors.

Attaingnant has the great merit of having developed a way to print music in a single impression, making the business simpler and much cheaper. He was also the first to print fully-harmonised dances for ensembles. Wilson points out that “[the] problem of printing more than one note on a staff was obviously formidable, but the failures of proofreading found in these editions are inexcusable”. A major problem was that typesetters were not musically trained, and therefore proofreaders were indispensable. Wilson dryly comments that “Attaingnant's seems to have been on vacation”. It is a matter of good fortune that the originals of the chanson transcriptions are mostly known, which allows for a correction of the many errors. That is different in the case of the dances: they are often of unknown origin, which explains why the track-list doesn’t mention the names of the composers. Although it is generally assumed that Attaingnant was musically educated, it is unlikely that he was responsible for the transcriptions. The names of those who made them have remained unknown.

Attaingnant’s books were intended for “organs, spinets, and clavichords”. It inspired Charlston to turn to the clavichord for his small selection of 16th-century pieces. According to Wilson, “[the] French plucked keyboard instrument of the era was almost exclusively the espinette, a rectangular virginal, none of which have survived”. He opted, instead, for the harpsichord: an early Italian instrument by an anonymous builder, partly because he does not like “the piercing sounds produced by virginals from other countries which look similar to extant pictures of the espinette”.

In his programme, transcriptions of vocal works and dances alternate. There is quite some variety in the chansons with regard to character and content. It is certainly not only jolly stuff. It was a nice idea to include English translations of the chansons in the online notes to this recording. The differences come off very well in these transcriptions. It makes a difference if a chanson says “I find no pleasure in these troubles which I have borne for so long, regardless of what I do” (A mes ennuis que si longtemps je porte) or “Grapevine, dear little grapevine, whoever planted you was a wise man” (Vignon, vignette). Considering the large production of chansons by Claudin de Sermisy, it is not surprising that Attangnant’s books include many transcriptions of pieces from his pen. Also represented is Adrian Willaert, best-known as the founder of the polychoral style in Venice, but also the composer of a considerable number of chansons.

The collections also include transcriptions of motets; only one of them is included here: Aspice Domine by Jean de La Fage, about whom very little is known. One is probably inclined to think that such a piece was intended for the organ, but that is not the case. At this time keyboard music could basically be played on any keyboard instrument.

This disc has more to offer than its title suggests. The second section of the programme includes pieces from other sources. Wilson states that “we must be grateful to Attaingnant for his entrepreneurship, without which we would have very little French keyboard music from the 16th century at all. This disc presents, alongside a heavily corrected selection from Attaingnant’s keyboard books, the pitiful remnants of what must have been a tremendous heritage, lost thanks to the carelessness and arrogance of later ages. These consist of scattered single pieces, a few fragments, and three larger sources from which representative samples are offered here”. The notes on these pieces are only available online.

This section opens with some fragments from various manuscripts. One of them is by Pierre Megnier, who also appears in the programme recorded by Terence Charlston. Especially interesting is the Pavanne by an unknown master; Wilson sees a strong similarity with the oeuvre of the Amsterdam keyboard master Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. It is written in the form of a passamezzo moderno. Nicolas de La Grotte was a keyboard player of repute and a composer of chansons. His Fantasia A 4º sopra Anchor che col partire is one of many arrangements of Cipriano de Rore’s famous madrigal.

Eustache Du Caurroy has become known for a collection of 42 fantasias for three to six voices. These are generally considered to be intended for an instrumental ensemble, but there is no reason why they could not be performed on the keyboard. Nearly all of them include a cantus firmus in the upper voice, and six of the fantasias have a melody from the Genevan Psalter. That is also the case with the 39me fantasie included here.

The disc ends with a curious piece, Seigneur Dieu, ta pitié, a spiritual chanson by Guillaume Costeley. “The piece in question, an anguished plea for divine aide in deep depression, is built upon a perplexing riddle involving hexachords, which need not be explained here, but which has the effect of bumping the music down a half-step into very strange keys, and back up again, several times”. This piece has risen all sorts of questions with regard to tuning used at the time. “It is striking that Costeley’s modulations into strange keys always happen where the text is particularly tortured, and that, when things take a turn for the better, the key changes back to normality. This leads me to think that the composition was (perhaps unconsciously) written with a way of tuning in mind which allowed circulation through all keys, with those moving farther away from C major sounding progressively less pleasant. With the octave divided into 19 equal intervals, they all sound equally awful”. For this piece, Wilson adapted the tuning of his harpsichord, in order to do justice to the expression included in the text.

It brings to a close a fascinating survey of a repertoire of keyboard music that is hardly known. Glen Wilson is one of those performers who likes to delve into unknown treasures. His Naxos discography of recent years attests to that. This disc is another jewel in his crown. His playing is, as always, stylish and thought-out. It is nice that he delivers extended notes to the music and to single pieces as well to some of his editorial and interpretational decisions. I strongly commend this disc to any lover of keyboard music. It will certainly fill a gap in his or her collection. And those who have a special liking of the French chanson of the 16th century will be interested to hear some fine transcriptions of well-known and less familiar specimens of this large repertoire.

Johan van Veen

[Keyboard works published by Pierre Attaingnant, 1531]
Prélude (from Treize Motetz) [0:41]
Aller my fault sur la verdure (Clément Janequin, c1485-1558) [1:53]
J'ay contente ma volunte (Claudin de Sermisy, c1490-1562) [1:30]
Galliard [1:18]
Au joli bois je rencontray m'amye (Adrian Willaert, c1490-1562)
Ballo and Saltarello Bel fiore [2:17]
Aupres de vous secretement demeure (Claudin de Sermisy) [2:21]
Branle simple [0:54]
A mes ennuis que si longtemps je porte (anon) [2:05]
Vignon, vignette (anon) [1:05]
D'ou vient cela (Claudin de Sermisy) [2:18]
Galliard [1:23]
Celle qui m'a tant pourmene (Claudin de Sermisy) [2:09]
Branle simple [0:50]
Puisqu'en deux cueurs y a vraye union (anon) [1:28]
Branle de Poitou - Branle simple - Branle gay [1:52]
Magnificat sur les huits tons:
Prélude sur chacun ton [3:37]
Ma bouche rit et mon cueur pleure (Jehan Duboys, late 15th C) [1:43]
Ballo and Saltarello La Svizzera [2:11]
Jouyssance vous donneray, mon amy (Claudin de Sermisy) [1:10]
Aspice Domine (Jean de La Fage, fl 1520) [5:03]
Dessus la marche d'Arras (Adrian Willaert) [1:34]
Galliard [1:09]
Mon cueur en vous a s'amour commence (anon) [1:50]
Galliard [1:07]
Contre raison vous m'estes fort estrange (Claudin de Sermisy) [1:50]
Galliard on the passamezzo antico [1:38]
Il est jour dit l'alouette (Claudin de Sermisy) [1:49]
Basse danse [1:02]
Le departir de cil qui tant l'aymoye (anon) [1:52]
[The 16th-century French keyboard repertoire]
Coranto (fragment) [1:11]
Quant j'eu cogneu en ma pensée (Pierre Sandrin, c1490-after 1561) [1:20]
Opening fragments of two fantaisies (Pierre Megnier, ?-?; Guillaume Costeley, c1530-1606) [0:54]
Pavanne [1:54]
Nicolas de LA GROTTE (1530-c1600)
Fantasia a 4° sopra Anchor che col partire (Cipriano de Rore, 1515/16-1565)
Fantasie sur l'air de ma Bergere/Pavane de [Luis de] Aranda [1:39]
Eustache DU CAURROY (c1549-1609)
39me Fantasie [6:11]
Guillaume COSTELEY
Seigneur Dieu, ta pitié s'estende dessus moi [7:00]

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