This past Friday Sono Luminus released a recording of the entire contents of Parthenia or the Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls:
Original cover of the collection being discussed (from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
The 21 compositions in this volume are divided among (although the author of the Wikipedia page for this collection cautiously says “ascribed to”) William Byrd (eight pieces), John Bull (seven pieces), and Orlando Gibbons (six pieces). The title comes from the Greek noun parthenos, which can be translated as “maiden” or, more specifically “virgin.” The noun “Maydenhead” has nothing to do with the latter denotation but rather refers to the “maiden voyage” of the publication, i.e. its first printing. The exact date is unknown, but it is usually taken to be late in 1612 or early in 1613. This would be consistent with the dedication;
To the high and mighty Frederick, Elector Palatine of the Reine: and his betrothed Lady, Elizabeth the only daughter of my Lord the king.
In other words the publication was intended as a gift for a wedding that was about to take place.
The harpsichordist for this new album in Alina Rotaru. The recordings were made at the Sono Luminus Studios in October of 2015, and those familiar with English composers will probably be amused to learn that these studios are located in Boyce, Virginia. She plays an appropriate single-manual instrument made by Thomas and Barbara Wolff in 1995 and based on an instrument made in 1738 in Hannover by Christian Vater. The recording comes with a booklet that presents an excellent background essay by John Moraitis. Rotaru has established herself as an active member of the Early Music community and has previously recorded solo harpsichord music by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and Johann Jakob Froberger.
So much for historical and technical background. What about the music? At this point I should own up and let readers know that I have a copy of the critical edition of these 21 pieces as transcribed and edited by Thurston Dart for Stainer & Bell. To date I have only played the first three Byrd pieces, but I believe they are representative enough to advance the claim that the music in this collection fits the amateur hands very well. Furthermore, the experience of playing these pieces provides a perfectly accessible introduction to the techniques through which embellishments were applied to tunes that, in their own day, were far more familiar than they are today. In other words the very act of sitting down to play these pieces amounts to entering a time machine in which the practices of making music differed significantly from the sorts of things we tend to learn through our present-day “music lessons.” I personally recommend trying to play at least a few of the selections in this volume even to those who feel unsure about their keyboard skills.
What about listening? By now I have a healthy amount of familiarity with what seventeenth-century music makers were doing. Thus, as a listener I can appreciate the technique that Rotaru brings to these recordings just as readily as I can appreciate how Yuja Wang can tear her way through some finger-busting passages by Sergei Prokofiev. At the same time I can appreciate the clarity with which Rotaru can distinguish embellishments of greater and lesser elaboration from the themes that are being embellished. Thus, the listener that is not steeped in historical knowledge can still discern “where the tunes are” and how, for Rotaru, playing them includes techniques for playing with them. As a result, I would conclude that this is an album that has the potential to appeal to anyone taking the trouble to give it some serious listening, regardless of any personal preferences for any particular historical period.