Byrd: Keyboard music (complete)

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Byrd
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Keyboard music (complete)
PERFORMER: Davitt Moroney (harpsichords, muselar virginal, clavichord, organ)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 66551-57
This immense project, recorded over six years and planned for 15, arises from Moroney’s passionate commitment to the greatest keyboard composer of the Elizabethan age. The outcome is a triumph. Moroney’s technical mastery, scholarship and profound musical thoughtfulness combine to create a sense of joyful spontaneity. The sound quality is an object lesson in recording technique: harpsichords intimate but never oppressive, three precious tracks each of gentle clavichord and chamber organ, and a magnificent organ. Here, Moroney strictly limits his choice of stops to suit Byrd’s period, and convincingly argues the case for transposing the music down a fourth, lending it a wonderful gravitas enhanced by almost 15 seconds of reverberation. Only once, in a ‘Ground’ (CD3) where two distant harmonies overlap, is the musical coherence less than crystal clear.

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Of Moroney’s two harpsichords, one has a unique specification (explained fully in 100 pages of generous notes) allowing exceptional timbral variety – try the wistful variations on ‘O mistris myne’ (CD5). Best, though, is his muselar virginal. Here, the positioning of the keyboard generates a ravishingly warm tone, though keys tend to clatter – they ‘grunt in the bass like young pigs’ said an 18th-century commentator. It can be intensely reflective (‘Pavana lachrymae’, CD2), or trumpet brashly in Byrd’s notorious ‘Battell’ (CD7).

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Over eight hours of music may appear daunting. But Moroney’s helpful grouping of dances, fantasias, variations on popular tunes, invites you to select your own programme from this archival production – surely the definitive account for the foreseeable future.