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WILLIAM BYRD: The Complete Keyboard Music.   Davitt Moroney: Harpsichords, Muselar Virginal, Organ, Chamber organ, Clavichord.   Hyperion CDA66551/7 7 discs 498m DDD.
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Indeed, this is one of the greatest projects ever! Davitt Moroney has long been hailed as the greatest Byrd expert and his vast knowledge has finally been preserved for all in this magnificent seven-disc set that personifies the grandeur and all embracing mastery of this mystical English composer. Browsing through the mammoth 45,000-word booklet takes one's breath away, let alone practicing, rehearsing, editing and recording all the 137 pieces, surely Moroney must be superhuman! Still his matter-of-fact way of recounting all these tasks seems almost like a labour of love, as indeed it must be for such care and affection to be lavished on such a daunting project.

One may have gathered that this is indeed a library choice so any further comments would be a bit superfluous. Not so, however. Moroney's way with the music provokes debate and his multifarious use of various instruments should start a whole host of new recordings, after all competition is indeed healthy. Of the seven discs (available for the price of five), only two are below the hour whilst the other five are well over seventy minutes, surely value for money is indeed a keyword here. The various instruments used (too many to mention here) all sound wonderful especially the ubiquitous muselar, surely a museum piece nowadays.[picture below]

I will restrict myself to mentioning a few favorites but I will say straightaway that almost all the pieces have beauty and an unrestrained amount of invention packed between the notes. Indeed the first discs contains that wonderful 'Lord Willobies Welcome Home', a delightful party piece whilst the 'Lesson of Voluntaries' shows Byrd's skill at combining the best traditions of his day with outstanding forward reaching thought. 'The Carman's Whistle' is another beautiful work with the sonorities of the chamber organ explored whilst the nine minute 'Second Ground' shows Byrd's versatility in this mode.

The second disc explores shorter harpsichord and muselar pieces. The sound gets a bit tedious after a while but there is no denying the genius in the short 'Preludium' and the lengthy "Have with yow to Walsingame'. Moroney's treatment of 'Jhon kisse me now' recalls the importance of this traditional melody, skillfully transformed by Byrd''s contrapuntal facility. With the third CD, we go on to organ territory (a personal favourite) and some of the finest works in the collection. Who could fail to be moved by the splendid 'Voluntarie' or the simple mysticism of the 'Clarifica me pater' pieces, sure testimonials to Byrd's unswinging Catholic faith. Moroney makes the transition from muselar to organ with remarkable dexterity; his fingers almost sweep along the Toulouse organ. If there were one disc from the seven that I would go into red-hot embers for, than it would have to be this!

Number 4 is similarly enticing although one of the shortest. A beautiful 'Fantasia' is matched by the usual folk tune arrangements, the best of which is the opening 'Will you walke the woods so wylde'. Spiritual harmony pervades 'O quam gloriosum est regnam', another mysterious work whilst the chirpy 'The Hunt's Up' recalls the pleasures of medieval fox hunting! The fifth discs also contains much beautiful music especially in the various short Galliards and Pavanes that permeate it with some breathtaking playing by Moroney. Short pieces also fill the sixth discs which also reaches 78 minutes like its predecessor. I would advise taking these two discs in small doses as the constant sound of 'skeletons in the closet' (vintage Beecham) may occasionally unnerve your ears.

Seven concludes the collection in style. By far the most impressive piece in this collection is the epic twelve minute 'The Battell', a wonderful work, surely one of Byrd's finest masterpieces in this genre. There are a number of Paven's dedicated to noble patrons, no doubt Byrd's tribute to these important figures whilst four versions of the 'Praeludium to a Fancy' had me tickled pink comparing and replaying!

Obviously no sort of detailed explanation will do this set justice. It is rather like trying to review the 'Encylopedia Brittanica'. All recordings are marvelously vivid and alive and the presentation is beautiful with parchment like slipcases and a handy cardboard box. The scholarly text is a must for all to read and enjoy the detail, whilst notes on each separate instrument used are also provided. A must choice for all keyboard enthusiasts and perhaps the dawning of a new interest into the timeless music of William Byrd.


Gerald Fenech



and Peter Grahame Woolf adds

A personal note in endorsement of Gerald Fenech's comprehensive review and suitably fulsome recommendation. In a period of intégrales (complete recordings on CD) no one before Davitt Moroney has thought to tackle the vast corpus of William Byrd's keyboard music. Until recently its sustained quality and originality has not been widely recognised. Perhaps prolificity, rather than being thought a virtue, has always been suspect and tended to put people off (think of some from our own time that come to mind, e.g. Martinu, Milhaud & Hovhaness)?

Davitt Moroney has loved this music for thirty years, and his boxed set, recorded 1991/2 and 1996/7 on harpsichords, organs, virginal and clavichord, is a wonderful culmination of that devotion. For closer to fifty years, I have enjoyed playing Byrd's keyboard music regularly on my Hodsdon clavichord, made for me in Lavenham in 1951. (Alec Hodsdon's wife Margaret was a leading virginalist of the time, specialising in Elizabethan music.) Several of the pieces have remained amongst my constant favourites. They go well on the clavichord, but need there fewer ornaments (just as well, because I cannot get my fingers around the elaborate ornaments which constantly enliven Moroney's performances). Davitt Moroney plays a few of the pieces on a 1972 Thomas Goff clavichord; 4 octaves, double strung "after German models". His finely crafted and beautifully decorated instruments were favoured in the 60s. With the rage for authenticity they became unfashionable, but now are being seriously re-explored by the British Clavichord Society.

I used to hear Thurston Dart and George Malcolm play them, and exquisite they were to see and hear. They also 'cracked' the difficult problem of recording and broadcasting the quietest of instruments, bedevilled by ambient noise. At concerts, Thomas Goff always hovered around, nursing his precious instruments and ensuring that discreet microphone enhancement was never allowed to degenerate into distorting amplification (a lesson still unlearnt in many concert contexts!).

All credit that the clavichord's extreme quietness, which comes as quite a shock after the other instruments used, is not falsified in Moroney's recording. Those other instruments include two harpsichords and two organs; none of them actually based upon instruments of Byrd's time. But since this does not worry a specialist like Clifford Bartlett (Editor of Early Music Review) it need not trouble general music lovers who study Music on the Web's reviews, and it certainly doesn't disturb me!

I too was especially taken by the sweet toned Muselar Virginal by John Phillips, 1991, after a Flemish instrument of 1679. Its keyboard is placed on the right which, by enabling the strings to be plucked in the middle of their sounding length, creates a rich, full sound. This beautiful instrument is illustrated in colour on the back cover of the 100 page booklet (another 100 in French!) of notes and essays with the seven CDs, as thorough and learned exposition of the subject as we are likely to see. There are many black and white (gray, rather, sometimes) illustrations of considerable interest, but they are not indexed. The listing of items in the Disc 7 slipcase has gone awry, but it is correct in the booklet.

The performances are alive and remain alert, rhythmically buoyant and full of fancy throughout 500 minutes of music, the culmination of "over thirty years living with and loving" William Byrd's keyboard music.

This mammoth achievement is well worth considering for a Christmas present (or self-indulgence). At £60 from Lindum Records (fax 01522 527530 or Email: it is quite a bargain.

Peter Grahame Woolf


Gerald Fenech



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