Master of musick

Classical - Dermot Clinch on a landmark recording of William Byrd's complete works

The series of Pavans and Galliards by the Elizabethan composer William Byrd "may be likened to the 96 pieces in Bach's 'Well-tempered Clavier' or the 102 movements of Beethoven's piano sonatas". So writes Davitt Moroney, Byrd scholar, one of the foremost harpsichordists of his generation. Moroney's new recording of the complete keyboard music of Byrd - the first ever - naturally includes all the Pavans and Galliards. If one accepts the performer's claim, it is one of the most momentous occasions in recording history.

The performers whom Byrd affects he affects extremely. Famously, Glenn Gould got excited about a single note in the ninth and final variation of the Elizabethan master's Sellinger's Round. The B-flat was "the only note of its persuasion to grace this 182-bar opus". But he could think of no more telling comment upon "that transition between linguistic methods with which all music of the late renaiss-ance was occupied". Not until the advent of Richard Wagner 300 years later were chromatic notes employed again with such force. And so on.

Gould concluded that Byrd was the "flamboyant Richard Strauss" of the Elizabethan era, a judgement as repugnant as any he ever made. But Gould's performances of selections from My Ladye Nevells Booke of Virginal Music lent crucial public weight to the task of taking William Byrd once again very seriously indeed. Gould played on an instrument, the piano, that the 16th century never dreamed of, and in a style, severe and dogmatic, it would have found equally outlandish. Davitt Moroney's performances on harpsichord, virginals and organ, authentic to the tip of their metal plectra, have finished this task off with inspired vengeance.

What do we have? The Bells: five-and-a-half minutes of unprecedentedly inventive keyboard virtuosity jigging around over the shortest unvarying bass pattern known in English music: two notes that go ding and dong with hypnotic predictability. Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, a late, great academic tour de force that suddenly departs, at its climax, on a harmonic journey "the likes of which had not been heard before in English music" and which in Moroney's performance has an ecstatic force rarely heard in performances of any keyboard works of the period. The Battell, a witty descriptive series from "The Souldier's Summons" to a "tantara, tantara" of Hollywood corn and "the battells be ioyned". Moroney plays it on the muselar virginals. "Good in the right hand", according to one writer of the period - an accurate one - but which "grunt in the bass like young pigs".

Venue and instrument are integral to the plan. The church in Toulouse where the organ music was recorded has a nave high and vast like that of Lincoln Cathedral, the church where Byrd's keyboard journey began in earnest. The echo - all 15 seconds of it - is of similar harmony-confounding length. At the other extreme, Moroney plays a clavichord, an instrument with a voice so humble that the strain to hear it becomes part of the intimate musical experience. And what of the 25 pieces recorded in the Long Gallery of Ingatestone Hall in Essex? Byrd's Roman Catholic patrons, Lords John and William Petre, looked down from contemporary portraits on a room Byrd knew for 20 years and the view from whose windows he would recognise today. Does it matter? To the sound, not at all: it is dry. To our fancy, a great deal.

Byrd's keyboard music was his laboratory. He was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, a loyal servant of the queen, but also a recusant Catholic. His rooms were searched, his friends and relations interviewed. His public temperament was bold but circumspect; in public composition he was rigorous and conservative. By himself, at the keyboard, it was another matter: on Hyperion's remarkable new set of CDs - you get seven for the price of five - we hear the great master, more often than not, with his hair let down, in private. In no music of the period is so great a range of styles and so broad a sample of attitudes worked through with such freedom. This truly is a landmark recording.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A world without children