The first genius of the keyboard

Davitt Moroney has just recorded the complete keyboard works of William Byrd. Will one of our greatest composers now receive the attention he deserves?
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The Independent Culture

That William Byrd (c1540-1623) remains among the three or four greatest composers this country has ever produced is acommonplace of musical history. Indeed, some scholars and performers would argue that he was the greatest of all. Yet, until recently,it has been less than easy for ordinary listeners to find out why.

That William Byrd (c1540-1623) remains among the three or four greatest composers this country has ever produced is acommonplace of musical history. Indeed, some scholars and performers would argue that he was the greatest of all. Yet, until recently,it has been less than easy for ordinary listeners to find out why.

True, the bulk of his vast output of almost 600 items has been available in reliable editions since the 1960s. True, perhaps a dozen ofhis works have become comparatively familiar: "Ye sacred Muses" lamenting the death of his master Thomas Tallis, for instance; or theMass for Four Voices, with its poignant "dona nobis pacem"; or again, such sprightly keyboard pieces as the variations on "Sellinger'sRownde".

But until the viol consort Fretwork brought out the complete consort music on the Virgin Veritas label a decade ago, one had to searchout individual fantasias and In nomines here and there. Then, in 1997, the ASV Gaudeamus label announced its long-term ambition torecord a complete Byrd edition, and the first three releases in that huge undertaking - of the Latin church music in superb performancesby The Cardinall's Musick under Andrew Carwood - have already thrown up some wonderfully bold rediscoveries. And suddenly, thismonth, the entire keyboard music, almost 130 pieces, has appeared from Hyperion.

Not that there was anything sudden about the intention to record it. Davitt Moroney is one of those dedicated scholar-performerswhose searching contributions to music ought to be valued far beyond the over-hyped activities of most star conductors or soloists.Fans of French Baroque music will know of his playing, notably in his complete, four-disc recording of the magisterial harpsichordmusic of Louis Couperin - of which Moroney has also edited the standard edition.

Nor is the new release his first shot at Byrd; his determination to tackle the complete keyboard works dates back at least to 1986, whenhe recorded a two-disc set of the Pavans and Galliards for the Harmonia Mundi label. Sessions for the present release have been goingon since 1991, and the accompanying booklet - more than 100 pages in all - must alone have taken months to prepare.

In order to maximise variety, Moroney has avoided ploughing through the output in chronological order of composition (in so far asthis can be established, anyway) or lumping genres together archivally - all the fantasias, all the variations and so on. Instead, he hasplanned each of the seven discs as a well-contrasted sequence for consecutive listening. He has also taken care to match the character ofeach piece to the appropriate instrument; ringing the changes, on all but one of the discs, between a nicely distinct pair of harpsichordsand a sweet-toned muselar virginals, with more occasional recourse to a chamber organ and a tiny, silvery-voiced clavichord.

The exception is the third disc, on which Moroney has brought together all the pieces for church organ - not least because the acousticof his chosen venue is so different from the rest of the set. This is l'glise- Musee des Augustins in Toulouse, the vast nave of whichsets up an echo of nearly 15 seconds. Moroney calls the French church "almost an instrument in itself" and likens it to the acoustic ofLincoln Cathedral where Byrd had his first professional post.

The lovely effulgence this lends to the organ sound also tends to blur Byrd's denser counterpoint, and Moroney offers alternativeharpsichord versions of six of the pieces elsewhere in the set. But he points out: "Debussy specifically wished his Nocturnes to soundflou ["unclear"]: similarly, waves of slightly imprecise organ sound in a large building can be moving. Yet modern technology usuallyonly offers our ears an absolutely clear and clean sound, as if this were the only way the music should speak to us..."

As an interpreter, Moroney has evidently taken note of earlier Byrd performers, but his playing has a flexibility and range all its own:imparting a grave splendour to the more weighty works, an exhilarating "lift" to the sprung rhythms of Byrd's dances, and, in latepieces, such as the cherishable variations on "O Mistris myne, I must", radiating a sheer affection one might have thought it beyond sorigid a mechanism as the harpsichord to convey. One might question a choice of tempo or nuance of phrasing, but such details neversound less than deeply pondered. It is hard to imagine how so diverse an output could have been more completely grasped and realisedby one player than Moroney has here.

For, not withstanding the stylistic requirements of Byrd's era - those incessant decorative turns, obligatory running finger patterns andpounding, fifth-based chords - diversity is the key. Like JS Bach 150 years later, Byrd had a genius for taking up, one by one, themodest standard genres of his time and elaborating, enriching and perfecting their latent possibilities beyond anything hiscontemporaries would have thought possible. Indeed, Moroney suggests that the magnificent sequence of nine ornate Pavans andGalliards that Byrd had copied into the manuscript of My Ladye Nevells Booke in 1591, amounts to the Elizabethan equivalent toBach's 48 Preludes and Fugues. Yet, having developed such structures to the full, Byrd seemed to take an equal delight in subvertingthem with wayward detail or sending them in unexpected directions. So a dance-medley such as "The Barley Break" will suddenlylurch for a moment into an astonishingly remote tonality; or the accompaniment to one of the variations on "Jhon come kisse me now"will amble on half way into the next, confusing the distinction between them; or a learned canonic fantasia will unaccountably divulge abouncy popular tune.

Nor are Byrd's surprises and ingenuities confined to the musical surface. He seems to have commanded an almost Brahms-like skillfor secreting all manner of contrapuntal devices among the inner parts of the apparently simplest dance forms. In detailing suchsubtleties, Moroney offers generous thanks to Alan Brown, editor of the standard edition of Byrd's keyboard music in the monumentalMusica Britannica series, and to Oliver Neighbour, author of the classic study The Consort and Keyboard Music of William Byrd.

But where a work as richly contrapuntal and, at times, densely dissonant as the mighty "Quadran Pavan" is concerned, perhaps thesalient words remain Byrd's own: music "that is well and artificially made cannot be well perceived nor understood at first hearing, butthe oftener you shall heare it, the better cause of liking it you will discover".

To play through the new recording, a disc a night over a week, and then to begin to explore it in more detail, is a remarkable experience.Hyperion is to be praised (yet again) for undertaking a project most commercial companies would regard as recherche and risky. Asfor Moroney's inspired advocacy, it not only convinces one that Byrd was indeed the first great composer in history to convey the fullrange of his personality through the keyboard, but that he remains among the keyboard greats of all time.

'William Byrd: The Complete Keyboard Music', Hyperion CDA 66551/7 - 7 discs for the price of 5

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