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Byrd: The Complete Keyboard Music

Davitt Moroney (harpsichords, muselar virginal, organs, clavichord)

Hyperion - CDS44461/7 (CD - 7 discs, reissued at special price: c. £25.50)

All praise to Hyperion for reissuing this iconic release at a reduced price, to give a new lease of life to a body of recorded performances which may be gathering dust, mostly unplayed, in public and private record libraries world-wide.

The new tends to oust the old, and cheap reissues - apart from making commercial sense - are important in keeping the best in our culture alive. Hyperion's Helios label carries an assurance of quality which is unsurpassed elsewhere.

In a period of intégrales (complete recordings on CD) no one before the english harpsichordist Davitt Moroney [b. 1950, pictured R in 2005] had thought to tackle the vast corpus of William Byrd's keyboard music and the boxed set, which saw the light in 1999. It remains a monument to scholarship, musicianship and record production. mostly

This year, ten years on, it has been re-released, the only trivial difference from the original is that the box is slightly thicker and the paper for the 100 page booklet likewise. Until fairly recently the sustained quality and originality of Byrd's corpus of keyboard music had 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 composers from our own time that come to mind, e.g. Martinu, Milhaud & Hovhaness)?

Davitt Moroney had loved this music for thirty years, and his boxed set, recorded 1991-'67 on harpsichords, organs, virginal and clavichord, is a wonderful culmination of that devotion.

For closer to fifty years, I had enjoyed playing Byrd's keyboard music regularly on my Hodsdon clavichord, made for me in Lavenham in 1951. (Alec Hodsdon's wife Margaret was then 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 on it need 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, double strung "after German models". Goff's finely crafted and beautifully decorated instruments were favoured in the 60s. With the rage for authenticity they became unfashionable, but latterly were 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 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 acquiring at less than half the original price; don't miss it second time round !

Peter Grahame Woolf
(Revised from 1999 Music Web review)