Sunday, August 10th marked the opening night of the 11th annual William Byrd Festival at St. Stephens Church in southeast Portland. A prolific composer whose career straddled the high Renaissance and early Baroque, Byrd (1540-1623) is known for his voluminous choral repertoire, as well as for being an accomplished keyboardist who wrote reams of music for organ and clavier. This concert was entitled "A merry noyse: An Illustrated Recital of the Keyboard Music of William Byrd." Renowned British keyboard player Mark Williams teamed up with Duke University musicologist (and Cantores in Ecclesia alum) Kerry McCarthy to present a program that traced the stations of Byrd's life through a concert and analysis of his keyboard literature.
The concert began without much fanfare: I thought it telling (and fitting) that it began by letting the music speak for itself. Williams sat at the harpsichord and played a Pavan and Galliard, the first of several examples of this pairing, with no introduction to the actual music. It was only after we heard the melliflous strains of Byrd's work that McCarthy took the stage to begin talking about the man and his life.
She quoted a contemporary of Byrd, who described him as "unequaled both with fingers and with pen," and cited this as one of the reasons the festival chose to open this year with a presentation of his keyboard music rather than a choral concert. Throughout the evening, McCarthy presented an engaging, sometimes light-hearted historiography that helped illuminate the music Williams played. She would speak for a few moments about Byrd's life and the career circumstances surrounding a set of pieces, and then step aside as Williams demonstrated.
McCarthy noted that Byrd "stood with one foot in the Middle Ages and one in the Baroque," and the music bore this out. As Byrd was Music Director at the Chapel Royal, some pieces were composed specifically for Queen Elizabeth I, who was a capable claveciniste herself. The Queen's Alman was based upon an antiquated modality that seemed to call to us from the shadowy mists of Old Europe, and yet the forward-looking Pavan for the Earl of Salisbury had all the baroque gravitas of a Purcell Almand from almost a century later. As an example of McCarthy's first 'foot' in the Middle Ages, Williams switched to the portative and played 2 Misereres of Gregorian origin from very early in Byrd's career, and from then on the program progressed chronologically.
Williams' technique was nothing short of brilliant. In playing baroque keyboard instruments on which the potential for dynamic variation from one note to the next is slim to nil, phrasing and articulation are everything, and it was a pleasure to hear an artist of his caliber bring such vivid character to Byrd's music. He played at turns on a beautiful double-manual Flemish harpsichord by Byron John Will, patterned after a 1616 instrument, and a positive organ by Bond Organ Builders. Both instruments were marvelous, and Williams displayed a clear mastery of both.
Byrd's keyboard work is quite often given to lengthy expositions of dizzying, florid brilliance, and Williams took these pieces at daring tempos, considering the sheer number of notes to be sounded per measure. He played with an expressive physicality that helped lend meaning to the music, and adroitly switched stops on both instruments in between sections in a manner that showed an understanding of the sonic potential available on each. By employing crisp, direct articulation he elicited a warm, reedy, flutter-tongue effect on the positive during a Qui Passe from 'Lady Nevell's Book.' His phraseology on the clavier during The Bells (based upon a two-note major 2nd pattern repeated 138 times according to McCarthy) lent a sanguine, almost longing quality to this reflection of the two church bells Byrd heard outside his home, and Williams never allowed the sometimes cleverly disguised ostinato to become stale.
The acoustics at St. Stephens are phenomenal, and so Williams' every intimation rang throughout the hall. These acoustics actually had the effect of making it sound as though the harpsichord had a sustain pedal like a piano, and this sometimes blurred the phrasing during the more rapidly florid passages on the harpsichord, although not to any overall detrimental effect. These same acoustics worked magic for the organ, and it was thrilling to hear the last echoes die off a second or more after the termination of a sustained final chord on the portative.
In all, Williams and McCarthy presented an engaging, scholarly exposition of the fantastic keyboard music of this hard-to-pigeonhole composer, at once accessible to the neophyte and yet a feast for the early music aficionado. The William Byrd Festival continues until August 24th; information can be found at the Festival and Cantores in Ecclesia websites.