Hyperion 10: #6. Byrd: The Complete Keyboard Music / Davitt Moroney

Davitt Moroney’s multiple award-winning recording of Byrd’s complete keyboard music is as much a triumph of scholarship as of performance, I think. Moroney is not only a keyboard player (that makes him sound like Rick Wakeman; please bear with me) but also a musicologist, and his liner notes for this box set run to 200 pages and 45,000 words. (I know what you’re thinking: this man sounds like a laugh).

Until I heard Moroney play Byrd, the little I knew of this corpus of work had seemed to me more than usually austere. During my A-levels I remember studying (perhaps off my own bat rather than in class, though this sounds so uncharacteristic of me that it must be a false memory) ‘Will you walk the woods so wild?’ with a recording that exhibited little joy or delight in the music. How odd to play this piece so po-facedly. It requires an Eric Morecambe to bring it to life (albeit one who plays the right notes in the right order). I think the recording I heard may have been by Syd Little. Let’s dispense with the comedic metaphors.

I cannot immediately recall any other recording I have heard that renders criticism so redundant. Moroney is so audibly in utter control, each note is so perfectly placed, that it is nigh on impossible to imagine a single way in which it might be improved. This is doubtless the result of his having lived with the music for so long and studied it in such great depth. The small number of instruments he plays on the recording possess the most beautiful sounds – not only harpsichord, but also organ, chamber organ, clavichord and muselar virginal. The range of noises he coaxes out of them is staggering – that the muselar alone can produce both the sharp attack and sweet resonance of ‘O quam gloriosum est regnum’ and the vicious sustained bass notes of parts of ‘The Battell’ is mightily impressive.

As with the Bach I wrote about earlier in the week, this music is best sampled in small doses, particularly by those who find that the timbres of the harpsichord and its relatives pall quickly. A single-disc compilation is available for the more cautious buyer, but with the whole set reissued this year at a lower price this represents less of an economy than it used to.

Favourite track? Perhaps ‘Have with yow to Walsingame’. Quite as irresistible as it sounds.

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