The keyboard music of William Byrd is perhaps more easily appreciated when it is heard next to that of his students John Bull and Peter Phillips. Even back in the early seventeenth century, composer Thomas Tomkins wrote that while Bull's music was "excellent for the hand," Byrd's was "excellent for matter." The exquisite proportions and perfectly controlled contrapuntal complexity of Byrd's pieces contrast sharply with the keyboard pyrotechnics of Bull and the deep, Italianate expressivity of Phillips. The works on this album were written for the virginal, an early relative of the harpsichord. If you've ever wondered whether the Elizabethans were above making word plays on its name, the answer is no. The excellent notes reproduce a letter of unrecommendation written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, to an English ambassador in Brussels after Bull had fled England to beat an adultery rap: "The man hath more music than honesty," the cleric wrote, "and is as famous for marring of virginity as he is for fingering of organs and virginals."
The program by French keyboardist Bertrand Cuiller covers a lot of ground in 14 pieces. The virginal repertory contained pieces in dance rhythms (the pavan and galliard, often paired, along with other rhythms such as the courante and allemand or "alman," familiar to contradancers of today), contrapuntal fantasias that were actually more like fugues, pieces built upon ground basses, examples of a specifically English genre called the In Nomine, and a few programmatic works. Among the more unusual works here are two depicting hunting; the contrast between the flamboyant Bull and the more circumspect Byrd is nowhere clearer than in Bull's The King's Hunt, where you can just about hear the hounds running, and Byrd's calmer Pescodd Time/The Hunt's Up that gives this album its curious title (a pescodd is a pea-pod or pouch). Cuiller is a rather dry player, but he manages both to introduce the repertory effectively and to highlight some rather wild pieces; sample the Bull In Nomine, MB9 and enjoy its unusual 11/4 time and spectacular chromatic conclusion. This disc is part of a superb series from France's Alpha label that pairs music with reproductions and discussions of contemporaneous artworks; the delightful portrait of "The Cholmondeley Sisters," a favorite of many visitors to London's Tate Gallery, complements the music beautifully in its exploitation of the variation principle that links all of the diverse forms of virginal music together.