Byrd/Bull/Philips

COMPOSERS: Byrd/Bull/Philips
LABELS: Alpha
ALBUM TITLE: Byrd/Bull/Philips
WORKS: Pescodd Time/The Hunt’s Up; Fantasias, MB 46 & 62; Pavan, MB
PERFORMER: Bertrand Cuiller (harpsichord, virginal)
CATALOGUE NO: 86
Byrd’s virginal music ranks him with Bach and Beethoven as one of the great keyboard innovators. The two kinds of writing practiced by Byrd – extended open forms and variations with or over concise motifs – formed the basis not only of his own masterpieces but also those of his pupils, among them fellow recusants John Bull and Peter Philips. Interweaving well-known with less familiar works, this recording reflects the subtle expressiveness of Byrd and his acolytes.

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Cuiller’s overtly sensual reading contrasts sharply with Davitt Moroney’s benchmark recording of Byrd’s complete keyboard repertory. Cuiller illuminates many pieces, but not all: while his corrantos are enchanting, his handling of the polyphony in Bull’s intricate In Nomine is muddled and uneven. Dances and airs dominate this disc, however, and here the paragraphing and tempos convince. Embellishments, rather than weighing down the melodic line as in Moroney’s interpretation, give the statement more space. The lush harmonics of Cuiller’s harpsichord (after Ruckers) ably support his facility to surprise by slight variation, and the sound engineering cleanly captures all the instrument’s nuances of colour.

Experts may baulk at Cuiller’s unscholarly approach. The modern editions used and glib sleeve notes provided reveal a slighting of the composer’s intent. The effect is often pleasing to the ear, but does not sate the intellect.

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Berta Joncus