Just as there were the French clavecinistes in the high Baroque period of the late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-centuries so, around a century before that, there was the school of English virginalists. General listeners will very likely know of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, probably the most important source of keyboard repertoire from that time and place, but Mahan Esfahani also draws on other collections for this fascinating and wide-ranging exploration. For the most part, the composers featured here – such as Byrd, Gibbons, Farnaby, and Tomkins – are better-known for their sacred choral music, but that belies their considerable skills and virtuosity in writing for the keyboard instrument that in England was called – luridly as it might seem – the virginal, but which is simply no more or less than the harpsichord (albeit usually a smaller type of keyboard, but using the same mechanism of plucked strings).
In his extensive and enthusiastic liner notes, Esfahani argues that works such as the Fantasias by Farnaby, Bull, and Byrd (the latter’s being the celebrated ‘Hexachord’ Fantasy, because built up on the first six notes of the scale) attest to the influence of improvised counterpoint in the context of cathedral organ music. Sure enough, despite florid contrapuntal writing which demonstrates their composers’ compositional imaginations straying a considerable way from the sober demands of ecclesiastical background music, Esfahani keeps a tight rein on the thrillingly vigorous strains in these pieces so that they do not run wild but come off with quiet bravado. It is in the somewhat more extravagant ornamentations and jaunty rhythms of the contrasting pairs of Pavan and Galliard by Byrd (the name of which gives this release its title) and Bull that a proto-Baroque temperament are brought to bear. The slower Pavans are met with a stoical determination on Esfahani’s part, whether the brighter and radiant one by Byrd, or the more sullen example by Gibbons, named after himself, which begins with the same falling four-note motif made famous by Dowland’s Lachrimae, and whose solid four-part chordal texture calls to mind a madrigal. The greatest possible contrast is effected by Esfahani’s energetic renditions of the Galliards; his relentless approach to the furious race of the fifth section of Gibbons’s commentaries on ‘The woods so wild’, for example, also testifies to that.
Elaborations on such ballads perhaps represent the most distinctively English contribution to the early literature of keyboard music, and incite their composers to an eclectic array of variations, grounded upon the idiomatic melodic and harmonic profiles of the songs used as their starting point. Again Esfahani rises superbly to the challenge of forging a coherent whole out of their varied sequences of shifting moods and technical explorations. Farnaby’s ornamentation of ‘Wooddy-Cock’ is particularly successful in that respect, whilst those by the same composer on ‘Why aske you’ are attractively decorous just as, in the anonymous elaboration of Dowland’s ‘Can she excuse my wrongs?’, Esfahani ensures that the gracefulness of the original vocal melody remains paramount.
He explains – rather than excuses – his use of a double-manual harpsichord, copied after those by Fleischer of Hamburg, as offering a range of timbres and colours that can do justice to this varied repertoire and creating for modern ears something of an equivalent thrill with which the earliest audiences would have experienced it, given that audiences now will be more blunted to the effects of the less-ambitious instruments those composers would generally have had access to themselves. This harpsichord’s quarter-comma meantone tuning offers some arresting harmonic turns, for example in the almost bluesy effect of a surprising modulation at the sudden slowing down of the tempo in Tomkins’s Pavana.
Although he does not explain his use of the virginal in four pieces it affords enticing contrast with its sprightlier, more immediate twang in the lively (and Anonymous) The Scottish gigg, and in the charming ingenuousness of (another Anon) Variations on the Romanesca, and the trills which open William Inglot’s set on ‘The leaves bee greene’.
Ultimately it is the vitality and integrity of Esfahani’s performances, which are very well recorded, that stand out in bringing this ancient music to life.