Performances of Renaissance keyboard music on the piano are rarely succesful; they introduce too many extraneous elements into the style, and the music collapses under its own weight. The cheekily titled Basically Bull, which includes music by John Bull and a few other composers of the Elizabethan virginalist school, may be an exception. Bull might be called the Liszt of the English Renaissance, writing virtuoso or otherwise extreme music that seems to try to break through its own boundaries. The effect of hearing the runs in the really difficult pieces, like the Galliard "St. Thomas, Wake!" (track 2), played on a piano is fundamentally different from that of a virginal or harpsichord; the effort of achieving the specified speed lends the music a brittle quality. Pianist Alan Feinberg, otherwise a specialist in contemporary music, forges a general interpretation to match these edgy virtuoso moments, using little pedal but a variety of hard attacks that emphasize the harmonic crunches and the daring insistence on the primacy of horizontal lines in Bull's music. Feinberg succeeds in re-creating the closed-in, somewhat fevered atmosphere of the conclaves of aristocratic music lovers for whom these pieces must originally have been performed, and he is aided in this quest by the engineers of the fine American label Steinway & Sons, which is gradually building a corpus of innovative piano recordings. Working in an unspecified location, they tamp down the piano's natural resonance and effectively amplify the percussive, intense quality of Feinberg's playing. Ultimately this album must be considered an experiment, albeit one in keeping with the spirit of Bull's music, rather than a straightforward performance of these compositions. But it is certainly one that will make you sit up and take notice.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
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