Byrd: Keyboard Music

Byrd: The Complete Keyboard Music
Davitt Moroney
Hyperion 66551/7 (7 CDs)

This complete set was several years in coming, and consequently much-anticipated. Moroney's earlier set of Byrd keyboard works was already a landmark, and so this is doubly so. Obviously, the "complete" nature of the program makes it special, and in this case it does so with no equivocation.

Byrd's keyboard music continues to be relatively neglected, although Moroney makes passionate arguments for it in both his playing and in print. There is no question but that Byrd was a major composer as well as someone who had a special affinity for keyboard writing. Among Renaissance keyboard composers, Byrd is certainly highly-valued for his writing in other genres. In some ways this has served to obscure his keyboard music, but there is little sense in which other pre-Baroque outputs could be historically preferable, with the only possible exception being Cabezón. Beyond any abstract significance, Byrd's keyboard music is thoroughly enjoyable. It is fundamentally uplifting and happy music, in a way which very few oeuvres can be.

Moroney's performance is as close to definitive as can be. Besides performing the complete output, he does so with such incredible cogency and compatibility that the individual performances will be difficult to top. Moroney is always very lucid in his phrasing and clear in his textures, and he consequently makes the music "speak" with a remarkable voice. His sense of tuning and keyboard sonority merely serves to underscore his interpretive excellence.

This is a case where I placed a great deal of pressure on a release, and if anything my expectations were exceeded. It was named my EM Record of the Year for 1999.

I had expected that this set would be more widely hailed, and it has received its share of praise, but that praise has been far from unanimous, especially from people who generally prefer later music. Moroney does not make his harpsichord sound like a piano. I am sure his arguments on remaining medievalisms in England in Byrd's day, such as Pythagorean tuning, are not well-received by people who want all early music to sound Baroque. Moreover, Moroney's special ability to phrase each line of polyphony independently is not valued by someone who wants to hear a main line and accompaniment. These people seem to find Moroney's style dull. I can do little more than note this. To me, a performance based on playing "colorful chords" is not only antithetical, it is dumbed down and uninteresting.

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Todd M. McComb