BYRD, BULL & GIBBONS: Parthenia – Alina Rotaru, harpsichord – Sono Luminus

BYRD, BULL & GIBBONS: Parthenia – Alina Rotaru, harpsichord – Sono Luminus DSL-92208, 52:52 (10/28/16) ****:

Three Tudor masters assembled in first printed keyboard collection to honor a royal wedding.

We first met Alina Rotaru on her debut recording dedicated to Johann Froberger back in 2012. That recording was a skillful investigation of the French Baroque aesthetic at its high-water mark. There followed a much-praised recital of Sweelinck. On the present recording, she turns back towards the early 17th century and the famous troika of Tudor virginalists, Byrd, Bull, and Gibbons. In 1613, works of these three English masters were gathered into a collection for a special occasion, the wedding between Elizabeth Stuart and Frederick V of the German Palatinate. The publication was loftily titled Parthenia, or the Maydenhead of the first musicke that was ever printed for the Virginalis. In fact, it was the first keyboard collection ever published anywhere and among the earliest examples of copperplate publishing. Thus, there is great political and cultural significance to the Parthenia. The music is very fine, although for the uninitiated, taking in 21 straight pieces in the austere idiom of the Tudor virginalists may evoke time diliation.

Oddly, the latest born composer, Orlando Gibbons, favors the older stile antico. His Fantazia of four parts is the most striking moment on the disc and, technically, the most demanding. Somehow the rigors of counterpoint and imitation are harnessed to an expressive melancholy. Ms. Rotaru gives an unsurpassed demonstration of these virtues. On the whole, the last third of the disc, the six pieces by Gibbons, seems to carry the most weight. The first eight pieces by Byrd invoke popular tunes of the day and are at once more familiar in feel. There are oddments too, puzzling fermata and a strange harmony or two. In feel, the alternating pavans and galliards breathe an air of happy repose, as if promising the royal couple auspicious nuptials.

The middle figure, John Bull, is represented on seven pieces, again pavans and galliards. He is a most interesting figure in the Tudor period. At the time, he was the teacher of Elizabeth Stuart and a highly esteemed keyboard virtuoso as well as a composer. His reputation suffered, however, from his penchant for involving himself in scandalous affairs with the gentle-ladies of the Tudor court. In fact, his career in London ended in mid-measure as he found it prudent to exile himself to Holland. (where he hung out with Sweelinck) He never returned, although there were attempts to extradite him. The Archbishop of Canterbury denounced Bull with censorious waggery; “the man hath more music than honesty and is as famous for marring of virginity as he is for fingering of organs and virginals.” 

The six pieces by the notorious Bull strike a middle-path between Byrd and Gibbons and, as such, are hard to characterize. I would suspect that attentions might wander on the longish pavan and galliard for St Thomas Wake. It is here that the coolness of the instrument (a single-manual German harpsichord by Thomas and Barbara Wolf (1995) modeled after Christian Vater 1738) is first noticed. Nicely balanced and superbly recorded, the instrument nevertheless offers little in the way of tonal variety or sonic blandishment. One wonders if it might have been advisable to play some of the recital on a virginal or another instrument. In any case, the longueurs spread out almost evenly over the set may have been premonitory to the very young Elizabeth: Every marriage has both its music and its tedium.

Of the playing of Ms. Rotaru, we have nothing but the highest praise. Three projects in a row highlight the rich lore of the harpsichord tradition and realize very high levels of artistry. The liner note are first rate and the packaging of Sono Luminus distinctive.

TrackList: 

Prelude in C major, MB 24 Byrd
Pavan and Galliard in G minor no 2, 3. Byrd
Galliard in C major no 4, MB 34 “Mistress Mary Brownlow by William Byrd
Pavan and Galliards (2) in A minor no 2, MB 15 “The Earl of Salisbury by William Byrd
Prelude for keyboard in G major by William Byrd
Pavan & Galliard for keyboard, “St. Thomas Wake by John Bull
Pavana, for virginal (from Parthenia) by John Bull
Galliard to the Pavan for keyboard by John Bull
Galliard by John Bull
Galliard on the 1st tone, for keyboard, MB22 by Orlando Gibbons
Fantasia a 4, No.1, for viols, MB24 by Orlando Gibbons
Lord Salisbury’s pavan and galliard, for keyboard, MB18/19 by Orlando Gibbons
The queen’s command by Orlando Gibbons
Preludes for keyboard, unidentified by Orlando Gibbons 

—Fritz Balwit

 

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