Johan Van Veen
, May 2007
Comparison disc: Pierre Hantaï (Accord 476 057-2)
Whenever a CD devoted to or containing the music of Giles Farnaby is issued I am interested. As far as I can remember the first time I heard some of his keyboard works was on a recording by the late Bradford Tracey, the fine Canadian keyboard player who died at such a young age. He made a selection from the surviving 53 keyboard pieces, all but one preserved in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. When I heard this music I was hooked, and that fascination remains undimmed. So I was happy when I got the opportunity to review this disc, which is devoted to one part of Farnaby's keyboard oeuvre, the Fantasia.
In the booklet Glen Wilson writes: "From its origins in the sixteenth century the term Fantasia indicated a sober piece of thematic development in strict polyphony with no text and no fixed melody or cantus firmus. The virginalists, too, begin their fantasias by developing one or more themes through the voices, but add to their contrapuntal working a final toccata, a closing section of idiomatic keyboard pyrotechnics and polyrythms, which corresponds with the later idea of a fantasia." In the Farnaby Fantasias on this disc this phenomenon is abundantly demonstrated.
Little is known for sure about Giles Farnaby. Some have assumed he was not a professional musician, partly because none of the more famous composers of his time mentioned him. Glen Wilson doesn't believe it: "If the quality of his music be not enough to dispel the suggestion that Farnaby was an amateur composer, the remaining facts of his sketchy biography ought to be." He mentions the fact that in 1592 he was referred to as an "expert" contributor to a collection of psalms, and that he graduated as Bachelor of Music at Oxford. And his 'Canzonets' of 1598 contained congratulatory poems from some of the greatest composers of the day. Also the fact that the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book contains so many pieces by him – no less than one-sixth of the total number of compositions – can hardly be a coincidence. He must have been held in high regard in his time. This is by no means contradicted by the fact that he died in great poverty: he is not the only composer of fame who died under miserable circumstances.
Farnaby wrote pieces of many kinds: dances, variations, transcriptions of vocal pieces – including his own – and the fantasias which Glen Wilson has here recorded complete. The very first item displays the qualities of Farnaby's keyboard writing. It begins with a rich polyphonic passage, which is followed by virtuosic figurations in the 'toccata' section and is closed by a cadenza. Wilson plays it brilliantly. The grandeur of the opening polyphonic passage is expressed by the registration. I assume the two 8' registers are used here. This is followed by the figurations without any slowing down or pause. By doing so the piece is kept together, whereas Pierre Hantaï creates breathing spaces which undermine its unity.
The fantasias often have themes which show Farnaby's imagination, for instance the opening theme of the Fantasia 8. Some of his themes were also used later in history, by Richard Strauss (Fantasia 4) and by Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (Fantasia 12 – Bach borrowed it from Fischer for the Fugue in E of the Well-Tempered Clavier).
The third item, the Fantasia 5, shows another feature of Farnaby's keyboard music: an enormous rhythmic drive and variety. Wilson realises this with great flair and imagination. The Fantasia 12 also displays a typical aspect of Farnaby's style: the reduction of note values, which not only increases the virtuosity but also creates a kind of growing agitation. He certainly knew how to bring a piece to an exciting climax.
The number of Fantasias is not enough to fill a whole disc. Wilson has added two transcriptions of unidentified vocal pieces. These show another side of Farnaby's compositional skills. Wilson also plays two transcriptions of his own. These can be interpreted as tributes to Farnaby's qualities as a composer of vocal music. And the two pieces he has chosen make me curious about these compositions. 'Construe my meaning' is characterised by strong chromaticism. 'Witness, ye heavens' is a piece for eight voices which is also harmonically imaginative. I strongly hope Farnaby's vocal music will be recorded some day.
As one may conclude from the above I am very happy about and impressed by Glen Wilson's interpretation of Farnaby's keyboard Fantasias. I strongly recommend this disc. I am quite sure that anyone listening to it will be convinced that Farnaby was a splendid composer whose music is captivating and highly original.
Although I have some reservations in regard to the recording by Pierre Hantaï, it is a good supplement to this disc, as in large part it comprises pieces from the other genres Farnaby tackled.