Classical CD Reviews

Basically BULL = Works by BULL, BYRD, TOMKINS, RADFORD, GIBBONS – Alan Feinberg, piano – Steinway & Sons

In a set of 20 transcriptions from the early keyboard, the virginal, pianist Alan Feinberg makes a strong case for the supreme contrapuntal and harmonic mastery of John Bull, an audacious character in every sense.

Published on July 28, 2013

Basically BULL = BULL: Galliard “St. Thomas, Wake!”; Pavan in the Second Tone; Galliard; 2 Fantasias; In Nomine IX; Canon 4 in 2; In Nomine V; Dutch Dance; Lord Lumley’s Galliard; Ut, re, mi. fa, sol, la; Christie redemptor omnium; Bull’s Goodnight; BYRD: Quio Passe: for my ladye nevell; The Galliard to the Third Pavan; TOMKINS: A Sad Pavan for these distracted times; BLITHEMAN: Gloria tibi Trinitas; RADFORD: Erterne rex altissime; GIBBONS: Pavan – Alan Feinberg, piano – Steinway & Sons 30019, 73:36 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

In the last generation of keyboard greats, Glenn Gould became interested in the early keyboard – especially the virginal – composers, like William Byrd, Giles Farnaby, and Orlando Gibbons. Many of their compositions had not been meant for the concert stage, so their intricate and often searching intimacy remained outside the ken of average concert-goers. John Bull (1562-1628), who met and was to exceed in productivity the Antwerp keyboard genius Jan Sweelinck, provides the focus of pianist Alan Feinberg’s excursions (rec. 15-17 January 2013, “cold winter’s days” in Virginia) on this disc. Feinberg has taken a select group of diverse works and transcribed them to the demands of the modern Steinway [naturally, for a Steinway & Sons CD...Ed.], sensitive to the originals’ timbre and affect while preserving their often daring harmonic progressions.  John Bull, claims Feinberg, “stands out as the most maniacal keyboard virtuoso.” Feinberg points to Bull’s willingness to exceed the conventions of his time and station, which applies to his social improprieties as well, since Bull had to flee from the court of King James I and the Archbishop of Canterbury on the grounds of moral turpitude.

Feinberg opens with a Sad Pavan by Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656). Subtitled “for these distracted times February 14, 1649,” the piece conveys a noble melancholy. Galliard: St. Thomas, Wake! By Bull enjoys pre-Bach bright polyphony, almost a forecast of Bach’s Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother, and rife with long runs, ornaments, and roulades. More introspective, Qui Passe: for my ladye nevell rings in the treble voice while any number of assisting voices chant in a manner that suggests the lyre, lute, or harp as among the keyboard’s ancestors. The lengthy Pavan in the Second Tone projects the same chromatic intensity and lyrical passion as a madrigal by Gesualdo, with intricate fingerwork that tests the metric and color talents of the performer. The “simple” Galliard by Bull plays in the manner of a bold toccata, rife with grace notes and appoggiaturas, chromatic runs, and contrary metrics in the hands.

Music by Bull’s predecessor at the Chapel Royal, John Blitheman (1525-1591), appears but once: in Gloria tibi Trinitas, a devotional piece of spiritual quietude, the polar opposite of the “vexatious” John Bull. William Byrd (1543-1623) makes his presence felt via The Galliard to the Third Pavan, a brief jaunt in old-English terms, where ruffs and courtship rule. The music of Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) appears twice: first, a Fantasia of fascinating harmony and stately restraint in two sections, the latter of which anticipates polyphony in Bach. Next, Gibbons proffers a lengthy Pavan whose sad chromatics adumbrate Dido’s Lament by Purcell (1659-1695). With the one contribution by John Redford (d. 1547), his almost vaporous Eterne rex altissime, we have, with Bull, the collaborators in the Parthenia, that collection of virginal music, the Maydenhead of the First Musicke That Ever was Printed for the Virginals, c. 1613.

The remaining nine works, all by John Bull, provide a compendium of this composer’s richly disarming arsenal of music-practice, each blithely rendered by Feinberg. The mischievous optimism of the man comes through in Lord Lumley’s Galliard. Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la could, out of context, be mistaken for richly textured Liszt or Busoni. In Nomine IX and In Nomine V both explore melodic ways and by-ways, the former at great length. The latter indulges more “earthly” antics that still convey religious and bravura fervor, much in the manner of John Donne’s conceits. Put another way, the piece anticipates brilliant Scarlatti. Dutch Dance makes a staid concession to a national style, particularly from the land that rescued Bull from persecution. Christie redemptor omnium casts a rather perky, even jubilant, light on a contrapuntal ‘mode’ of salvation, especially in the left hand. Two pieces entitled Fantasia by Bull rather well define his musical ethos: experimental and probing, their bright, rising half-steps might mirror the age of burgeoning Enlightenment that culminates in Newton’s penetration of a formerly perplexing universe. The ‘antiquarian’ side of Bull emerges with Canon 4 in 2, reminiscent of the Gabrieli mentality.

With John Bull’s Goodnight we sense the impish humor of the man, who often bade goodnight to a lady, leaving her with several forms of fond remembrance. Here was a man who “hath more music than honesty and is as famous for the marring of virginity as he is for the fingering of organs and virginals.” But we listen to this naughty boy with the same relish with which we still enjoy the cinematic antics of Errol Flynn. Excellent Steinway sound, courtesy of engineer Daniel Shores. [But would have been nice to hear on an instrument such as Bull composed on...Ed.]

—Gary Lemco




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