Notes and Editorial Reviews
A beautiful set of the great William Byrd's harpsichord music, well-played on four excellent instruments.
My Lady Nevells Booke is a collection of 42 pieces for keyboard by William Byrd. It seems that it was compiled for, Elizabeth Bacon, the third wife of Sir Henry Nevell but there is some uncertainty surrounding this attribution. This luxurious book, bound in leather and decorated with gold, contains one of the largest groups of keyboard works by Byrd. It includes some pieces that are found only in this book and which appear to have been composed especially for this collection.
While many recordings of Byrd’s keyboard music exist, there seems to be no other complete set of the works in this book. There
is one exception, of course, in the shape of Davitt Moroney’s extraordinary Complete Keyboard Music on Hyperion. In addition to this being a full recording of the collection, the set benefits from the use of four outstanding instruments by Keith Hill. They are a lautenwerk (or lute-harpsichord), which is used on the first piece of the set, as well as a dozen others; an Italian single manual harpsichord; and two Flemish double-manual Ruckers copies.
It has become somewhat trendy to record English keyboard music on multiple instruments. Moroney’s set includes several harpsichords, muselar virginal, clavichord, chamber organ, and organ. This gives a more varied range of colours than a single instrument is capable of delivering, and, in most cases, better represents the variety of instruments used at the time. We can contrast this with Bach’s music, where the harpsichord was the norm - though Bach probably played a clavichord at home, and much of his music sounds excellent on that instrument. English music of the kind found in My Lady Nevells Booke was played on a variety of instruments. Recordings like this therefore have the advantage not only of presenting excellent music, but also of providing a more “authentic” experience. This is how listeners might well have heard the music. Of course, they would never have heard all three-and-three-quarter hours of this music in one sitting.
As for the music itself, William Byrd’s keyboard music is both idiomatic of his time, and unique. The very first work in this set, My Ladye Nevels Grownde, played on lautenwerk, is a French-like work with broken chords and attractive melodies. Farr plays this with subtlety and detachment, letting the music come through. The lautenwerk fits this piece very well, as it does most of the others where it is used. Another very attractive ground, Hughe Ashtons Grownde, sounds almost like Couperin with its ornamentation and style brisé. The Italian harpsichord used gives it a beautiful, almost other-worldly sound. This piece is slow and introspective, and, again, the combination of music, performer and instrument is nearly perfect.
Many of Byrd’s keyboard pieces are combinations of galliards and pavans. These two-part works feature a first movement, the pavan, which is slow and melodic, much like a saraband. The second part is much more lively and rhythmic. Thematically related, the pavans are generally longer than the galliards, and one can imagine how people would dance to these types of music, though harpsichord pieces were more for simply playing than for accompanying dancers. Each pavan/galliard set is played here on a single instrument, with the instruments changing from one set to the next. Listening to just the pavans and galliards gives an excellent introduction to Byrd’s music, and highlights the varied colours and tones available from the four instruments used here.
While Byrd did not write suites, as the French or Germans did, he did produce some pieces that are relatively long in comparison. Several pieces go over the eight- or nine-minute mark, including the excellent Have With Yow to Walsingame, a set of twenty-two variations. The performance here is understated, and exploits every possible effect of the Colmar Ruckers copy on which it is played.
So we have here an exemplary recording of great music; Byrd was arguably England's greatest composer of music for the keyboard. Beautiful instruments are deployed and the sounds of all four are luscious. The sessions took place in a fine acoustics with a hint too much reverb, but otherwise the instruments can be heard in all their splendour. The picture is completed by sensitive and distinctive playing. Elizabeth Farr is an excellent performer and seems perfectly suited to this music. I regret to say that I was unfamiliar with her before hearing this set.
If you do not know William Byrd’s keyboard music, you have no excuse now. This is undoubtedly the best collection available for its price - thank you, Naxos. If you are familiar with this music, you’ll certainly want this 3 CD box. Not only is it well-played and on beautiful instruments, but it contains all the works from Lady Nevells Booke, the only such set available right now. Trust me; you simply can’t go wrong with this.
-- Kirk McElhearn, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
My Ladye Nevalls Booke by William Byrd
Elizabeth Farr (Harpsichord)
Date of Recording: 08/2006
Venue: Ploger Hall, Manchester, Michigan
Length: 224 Minutes 51 Secs.
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