Mahan Esfahani / Peter Watchorn

John Bull: Complete Works for Keyboard, Vol. 1

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The portrait of John Bull on the cover of this two-CD U.S. release gives an idea for the uninitiated of what to expect from the composer's music: it's intense, single-minded, and even a bit demonic (although the hourglass topped with a skull with a bone in its mouth is apparently an alchemical symbol). Bull was, in the words of an unidentified writer quoted by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, "the Liszt of the virginals." The most immediately apparent feature of his music is extreme virtuosity, on display especially in the mind-boggling set of variations entitled Walsingham (CD 1, track 8) and in the galliards of the pavan-galliard pairs. But the opposite pole in Bull's style exerts just as strong a pull: he is fascinated by strict polyphony by what would be called harmonic progressions, and by the close study of the implications contained within small musical units. As spectacular in their way as the keyboard fireworks are, the three separate settings of a tune called Why Ask You? on CD 2 are marvelous explorations of compressed musical gestures. Although the chromatic element in his music is only moderate (it is most thoroughly deployed in a sad pavan-galliard pair memorializing Elizabeth I), you might think of Bull as an English counterpart in extremity to Italy's Carlo Gesualdo. Indeed, his life is nearly as colorful as Gesualdo's was; among other episodes, he was forced to flee England for the Netherlands after charges later summarized this way: "The man hath more music than honesty and is as famous for marring of virginity as he is for fingering organs and virginals." Bull, for his part, maintained plausibly that the charges were trumped up, with the real motivation being to harass him for his Catholic faith. Annotator and harpsichordist Peter Watchorn provides detailed accounts of Bull's life, including an investigation of the elusive Walsingham, and also discusses the three Dutch-style harpsichords used on the album in detail. The pair of harpsichordists named on the cover do not perform together; instead, Esfahani is Watchorn's student, invited to participate in the project. It would take an immersed specialist to tell them apart and perhaps specialists are the intended audience for this first installment in an eventual complete recorded edition of Bull's keyboard music. An hour and a half of Bull may be a lot for general listeners, but even many of them will find fascinating items here.

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