John Bull is one of those composers known more for certain salacious and possibly apocryphal details of his life than for his music -- the Archbishop of Canterbury is said to have remarked that "the man hath more music than honesty and is as famous for marring of virginity as he is for fingering of organs and virginals" (which merely makes one wonder who was fingering what). But he may have met his musical match in the American-Dutch harpsichordist Kathryn Cok, an adventurous soul who has recorded everything from Renaissance music to Stephen Foster. Cok in her notes (given in English and Dutch) identifies Bull in relation to late Renaissance keyboard music as a composer who "was consistently pushing the borders in what was then quite a conservative genre." Bull broke through the boundaries of keyboard music's slowly evolving dance, contrapuntal, and variation (or "division") forms with intense chromaticism, virtuoso technical complexities, and a certain dramatic flair that sets him quite far apart from Byrd, his immediate predecessor. Most immediately noticeable on Cok's disc is the miking, which puts you almost up against her splendid harpsichord, a copy of a powerful Dutch instrument (a Ruckers) of 1638. Her performance is mercurial, kinetic, and fully adequate to the conceptions of such works as the Fantastic Pavan, track 7, and the mysterious subjectivity of My Self. Cok alternates between the harpsichord and a virginal, using the lighter instrument for the variation pieces such as the gigantic Walsingham. This work may not quite support its 17-minute length, but the Lisztian sweep Cok brings to the shorter chromatic pieces is something entirely new for English keyboard music. Bull's music is often played on the organ, but Cok here offers a new interpretation that seems likely to make audiences hear his music in several entirely new ways.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
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