In September of 2010, the Dutch harpsichordist Pieter-Jan Belder began making a series of recordings of selections from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book for Brilliant Classics. Brilliant has been releasing the results in a series of volumes, each consisting of two CDs. The first volume, which was released in March of 2012, oriented the listener with an assortment of pieces by the better-known composers whose music had been collected. (The total number of pieces in the entire collection is 297.) Those composers were (in alphabetical order) John Bull, William Byrd, Giles Farnaby, Thomas Morley, Peter Philips, and Thomas Tomkins. The second volume, released the following December, was devoted entirely to works composed or arranged by Byrd. After a little less than two years the third volume was released, offering nineteen pieces composed or arranged by Philips, along with the four works by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck that had been included in the collection.
The fourth volume was released at the end of this past February. Once again, two composers, Farnaby and Bull, are presented; but in this case each one has his own CD. By a rough approximation, Belder should now be about halfway through his project.
It is unclear who benefits most from this effort. Belder is certainly a beneficiary. Simply knowing enough about every composition in the collection to be able to play it for recording should be sufficient to establish him as an authority on the source, if not on practices of making music at the end of the sixteenth century. On the other hand that achievement will probably not inform us about the circumstances under which the anthology was compiled or the motives of the individual(s) responsible for the compilation. Most of us probably know the collection through the two volumes reprinted by Dover Publications, whose covers suggest that this was music for personal solitary pleasure (from a time when keyboard skill was part of one’s education), rather than for virtuoso performance before an audience. From that point of view, these recordings might help the skilled amateur select compositions (s)he might choose to learn to play.
Those individuals might therefore do well to be warned that they should purchase both of the Dover volumes. The works have not been recorded in their order of appearance in those volumes; and the only index (arranged alphabetically by composer) is at the end of the second volume! However, the well-equipped listener with both volumes will then be prepared to use Belder to provide some sense of the respective durations of the pieces he has recorded, as well as the dexterity required for proper execution. Thus, if this project does little more than encourage a new generation of listeners to get to know the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book through their personal keyboards, that should be reason enough for us to track its progress!