Richard Egarr - One Byrde in Hande - The Consort

Richard Egarr is a most versatile musician, with a fine track record in CDs of keyboard music, outstanding among which is his boxed set of the complete works for harpsichord of the incomparable Louis Couperin. With this present disc he joins an accelerating succession of impressive performers who have released recordings of selections from keyboard music by William Byrd (1538-1623), in the wake of Davitt Moroney's own boxed set of Byrd's entire oeuvre in 1999.

For this reviewer, the outstanding highlight among the contents of Egarr's disc is the Pavan and Galliard BK16 (tracks 6-7), so I was alarmed to see that Egarr suggests in his booklet notes that the attribution to Byrd is unsafe. This is not so: his error seems to be based upon a misreading of an article by David Schulenberg, 'The keyboard works of William Byrd' (Musica Disciplina, vol. 47, 1993, pp. 99-121, at p. 103). Alternatively he is relying upon an early edition of William Byrd: keyboard music, vol. 1, edited by Alan Brown (London: Stainer & Bell, 1969) in which Brown expressed reservations about Byrd's authorship, before a second independent source with an attribution to Byrd was discovered by Robert Pacey (see `Byrd's keyboard music: a Lincolnshire source', Music & Letters, vol. 66, 1985, pp. 123-6), whereupon in subsequent editions, Brown confirmed the safety of the attribution. In any event, BK16 is as safe an attribution to Byrd as any piece from that era reasonably can be, and Egarr's uncertainties can be dismissed. Thankfully his performance cannot: he responds to the Pavan, one of Byrd's most wistful compositions, with poignant sensitivity, and although the Galliard could have been a touch more lyrical, he gives a clear account of its beautiful opening melody.

The disc begins with a performance of Byrd's (and Europe's) first keyboard masterpiece, the Prelude and Fantasia BK12- 13, in which Egarr expands Byrd's sometimes riotous notation to provide some varied tempi of his own. While this approach is an expression of Egarr's passion for Byrd's fantasias, and succeeds in hands as gifted as Egarr's, simply following Byrd's own notation can be just as effective in interpreting this tumultuous work, as long as this is accomplished with commitment and not just a metronome. Incidentally, Egarr follows Byrd's pupil Tomkins and observes the repeat at bars 58-61, which is ignored by Francis Tregian in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.

Thereafter matters became more grounded. Or rather, after another Prelude (BK1), he proceeds to play two of Byrd's `short' Grounds (BK9 and 43) and these do full justice to Byrd's conception and creativity - BK9 has a particularly beautiful conclusion - ensuring that they are not merely dour technical exercises but rather, the varied and stimulating musical journeys that we expect from Byrd, with their melodic, harmonic and rhythmic felicities brought well to the fore by Egarr, yet all of them serving the greater cohesive whole. After the pavan and galliard already mentioned comes the second major highlight among the contents, with adjacent performances of Ut re mi fa sol la and Ut mi re, following the intention clearly stated in two original sources. It is in some ways a shame that such a magnificent piece as the former should have such an uninspiring title. The recording by Davitt Moroney on a period organ (even in an unhelpful acoustic) is among the best of any work by Byrd on any recording (Hyperion CDS 44461-7) and there is always the question as to whether a performance on the harpsichord could emulate Moroney's for power, drama and (despite the acoustic) clarity. In the present instance, Egarr does everything to match Moroney's performance, and if the harpsichord cannot quite achieve the same sustained impact as the organ, it nevertheless does Byrd proud.

There are several crucial changes of mood between certain variations and Egarr brings these off well. The exquisite suspension to begin variation 6 is beautifully accomplished, despite the harpsichord's lack of sustaining power compared with that of an organ. At the beginning of no. 9, the change from major to minor is accomplished with appropriate drama, and the changes of time from duple to triple at no. 13 and back again at no. 17 are audibly indicated but not exaggerated, so the momentum is sustained. We cannot know what Byrd's thoughts and feelings were when he composed, but it is clear that he put plenty of both into his works, whether emotional, philosophical or theological (or all, or more), so that a work that is superficially a technical exercise becomes an engaging and engrossing statement from a remarkable creative and original (indeed pioneering) mind. In his book about Byrd's keyboard works, the late Oliver ('Tim') Neighbour is disappointed with Ut mi re - though a disappointing work by Byrd would be many a lesser contemporary's masterpiece. This reviewer does not agree with Tim, while conceding that it is not as fine a work as its predecessor. However, all things are relative, and Egarr's performance still makes for enjoyable listening, again contriving to reveal Byrd's polyphony and overall construction as a rewarding entity. Another highlight is the Fantasia BK62, probably one of Byrd's earliest in this genre. Neighbour suggests that it predates the masterpiece in A minor (BK13) mentioned above, which seems plausible, given the quality of the latter piece. Nevertheless BK62 has much in its favour, not least that we are treated to Byrd's longest work in this genre. Egarr responds to Byrd's restless creativity - though there are always passages of homophony to allow players and listeners to take stock - and this work must have made an impact in its time, as both Peter Philips and Pierre Cornet based fantasias upon its opening theme, though Byrd has left this long and eventfully behind by the time we reach the conclusion.

In the hands of sensitive players, the joy of Byrd's Pavana Lachrymae resides in the varied strains on Dowland's already exquisite themes. Sometimes Byrd's musical comments upon the works of his contemporaries could be gently critical, if not acerbic, but he seemingly chose to set Dowland's galliard out of admiration, and his own commentary, especially as expressed through the scalar passages in the final varied strain, revels in his chosen material, seeming to invite the listener or player to relish Dowland's original themselves. After another Prelude (BK24) this is followed by A fancie: for my ladye nevell BK25. As in his performance of the A minor Fantasia (BK13), Egarr pulls Byrd's notation around at times, adding some fanciful graces, but it is an exuberant version of one of Byrd's sunniest works, though with a suddenly pensive concluding cadence, which is often an excuse for a fanfare, especially when played on the organ, an instrument that can also do more justice to the suspensions low in the register in bars 71-2. Perhaps the work's initial rising C major scale was taken by Byrd from a similar gesture at the word lux, bars 66-73 in Part 2 of the motet Descendit de coelis from his second volume of Cantiones sacrae of 1591, the year John Baldwin fmished copying My Ladye Nevells Booke. And so to the final item, The Bells, one of Recordings the most famous pieces in the harpsichord repertory, even claimed as proto-minimalist for its ground of a mere two notes. From the outset Egarr adds and repeats notes, perhaps to imitate ringing that he has heard on real bells, not always flatteringly when he allows individual parts - one presumes deliberately - to get slightly out of strict time. Nevertheless, as he says in his notes, this all comes as an expression of deep love for, and engagement with, the music and, although one might not want such readings to be recorded routinely, it brings an impressive, engaging and likeable disc to a resounding close.

The Consort
01 June 2019