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Basically Bull / Alan Feinberg

Release Date: 06/25/2013
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30019
Composer:  Thomas Tomkins ,  John Bull ,  William Byrd ,  John Blitheman  ...  Performer:  Alan Feinberg Number of Discs: 1
Recorded in: Stereo

A pianist explores the uncharted territory of the 16th-century keyboard.

Of all the great English composers of this period, it is John Bull who stands out as the most maniacal keyboard virtuoso.

While others provided popular tunes and simple dances for the new instrument called the “virginal,” John Bull offered up experimental, challenging works, pieces that exuberantly overstepped conventional musical expectations. Fashioning a group of these works to function in concert and translating them to the wildly different timbre of the modern piano has been an exciting venture into the 16th- and 17th-century avant-garde. Bull’s music is brimming with invention and inspiration, power
Read more and passion. – Alan Feinberg

R E V I E W S:

English virginal music from the 16th and early 17th centuries played on a modern Steinway? Unthinkable! Shocking! Forget it; this disc is fabulous. It may be a heretical notion in this era of authenticity, but the simple fact is that anything a harpsichord or virginal can do, a piano can do better, never mind its other advantages. Compare, for example, pianist Alan Feinberg’s way with the conclusion of John Bull’s In Nomine IX to a very good harpsichord version (Bob van Asperen on Teldec), and you will have to acknowledge the piano’s inherent superiority (sound clips). The latter’s sensitivity to touch, dynamic range, degrees of articulation, and timbral warmth just blow away the dense, mechanical clatter of the harpsichord—and that’s no bull.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the harpsichord, and have never agreed with Beecham’s description of the sound of the instrument as “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof”. However, it is very difficult to find a really good-sounding instrument, and particularly in heavily contrapuntal music such as this the piano offers an unbeatable medium in which to explore a style that at times sounds astonishingly modern. The aforementioned In Nomine IX, for example, moves forward in an unexpected 11/4 meter. Some of the fantasias employ a striking degree of chromaticism. Redford’s Eterne rex altissime, Blitheman’s Gloria tibi Trinitas, and Bull’s Christe redemptor omnium, like the two In Nomine pieces, take a fragment of vocal polyphony and turn it into a virtuoso extravaganza of intertwining melodic lines and affecting harmonies.

Indeed, all of the works here, from the simple Dutch Dance to the Pavanes and Galliards of Bull’s contemporaries Byrd, Gibbons, and Tomkins, reveal a remarkably mature, expressive musical language, one that you can appreciate afresh in Alan Feinberg’s vibrant interpretations. He doesn’t romanticize the music. Indeed, as you can hear for yourself his rhythm tends to be steadier than van Asperen’s, who uses agogic inflection tastefully to compensate for his instrument’s inherent lack of expressivity. But Feinberg also isn’t afraid to exploit the piano’s full range of musical capabilities, wholly to the music’s advantage in terms of balance, rhythm, and articulation.

Sonically the recording sounds beautiful, richly capturing the timbre of the piano without any blurring of the musical lines. After listening, you will certainly be left wondering why this music has remained the province of early music specialists. It would grace any modern recital program. Glenn Gould’s disc of music by Gibbons and Byrd gave piano mavens a first inkling of the riches contained in this repertoire, and it’s surprising that so few major pianists have taken up the challenge. We’re lucky that Alan Feinberg has done it so superbly. A revelation.

-- David Hurwitz,


If John Bull’s keyboard music hasn’t received the kind of attention given to that of William Byrd (which the learned and agile David Moroney has recorded complete, and with copious notes, on Hyperion 44461), it still has several adherents. Siegbert Rampe recorded a fine disc in 2005 (MDG 341) that I praised at the time, while criticizing a penchant for rushing. Bob van Asperen (Teldec 4683619) and Joseph Payne (BIS 729) have joined in as well. The most hopeful development has been the first release (301) in what promises to be the complete keyboard music from Musica Omnia, featuring Peter Watchorn and Mahan Esfahani; and though that appeared in 2009, the small company is still active, and promises future updates. I hope this works out for them. Small companies rely even more heavily than large ones upon the proceeds of sales to determine future direction.

That said, we have here an entry out of left field, a disc of Bull’s music (technically 13 selections, with seven by his English contemporaries) performed not on the clavichord, harpsichord, virginal, or organ, but modern piano. Alan Feinberg is best known for his several recordings of 20th-century works by the likes of Ives and Cowell, though clearly he relishes the challenge of working against stereotype. This applies as well to thinking through an approach to this Elizabethan keyboard music that would be acceptable on his instrument.

Feinberg effects a compromise between the sound of the harpsichord and piano. To get a greater definition approaching that of the harpsichord, the sustaining pedal is all but eschewed, while the piano’s ability to deliver a wider range of colors through variation in touch is made use of to good advantage, with Bull’s delicate Pavan in the Second Tone and exuberant Galliard furnishing strong examples. Feinberg doesn’t press the point greatly, so that at no time does the music come across as though rendered by an early 20th-century advocate looking to make the most of orchestral-sounding contrasts (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that view, when it’s delivered by a skilled and thoughtful performer such as Mordecai Shehori).

It’s the intimate sensitivity of Feinberg’s playing here that ultimately wins me over, all other virtues to one side. His version of Bull’s ninth In Nomine is performed more flexibly than Rampe’s, and taken at a moderate tempo that works to greater advantage, as well. Simpler pieces (Bull’s Canon 4 in 2) are treated simply; and a few of the dances that could have been done boisterously, such as the Dutch Dance, are instead given what we moderns might call the French treatment: supple style brisé phrasing, thoughtful pacing, and turns supplying a functional weight. My only regret for this album is that Feinberg, who clearly relishes the complexity of Bull’s voicing, does not take on the most technically and structurally ambitious of all his keyboard works, the Walsingham Variations. That aside, and in excellent sound, this is a winner of a release.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal


"Feinberg translates the exquisite chromatic ruminations and intricate counterpoint of Bull's keyboard works, and some contemporaries, into the lush sound world of the modern piano. ... It is a mark of Mr. Feinberg's skill that playfulness, along with grace and exuberance, characterize his performances of these 400-year-old miniatures even though their technical demands are of a sort rarely encountered until the 20th century." – The New York Times

"John Bull, who met and was to exceed in productivity the Antwerp keyboard genius Jan Sweelinck, provides the focus of pianist Alan Feinberg’s excursions on this disc. Feinberg has taken a select group of diverse works and transcribed them to the demands of the modern Steinway, sensitive to the originals’ timbre and affect while preserving their often daring harmonic progressions. ...Excellent Steinway sound, courtesy of engineer Daniel Shores. " – Gary Lemco, Audiophile Audition

"Usually Feinberg is heard championing the works of contemporary composers, but here he proves he has a deft hand at Renaissance music as he imparts an airy and expansive countenance to Bull's music. And because some of the works are getting their first outing on the modern keyboard, it is more than notable. There is something fetching about this Elizabethan music; it sounds contemporary, bratty and fresh."

– Edward Ortiz, The Sacramento Bee


Virtuoso pianist Alan Feinberg's new Basically Bull [is] a disc of very early English keyboard music. Early, indeed, in that this project is based on the first collection of keyboard music ever printed in England (1611). These works by Bull, Byrd, and Gibbons were composed for the early instrument known as the virginals.The virginals is a smaller, less complex version of the later harpsichord, with only one string per note. The virginals also plucks the string closer to the middle than to the end, both factors resulting in a softer tone than the harpsichord—vox virginalis (the voice of a young girl) might be the origin of the instrument's name. All of which is carefully calculated to bring on a big case of historically informed heebie-jeebies. Take music originally written for an instrument so quiet that a normal conversation will drown it out, and so small that you can tuck one under each arm, and rack that music on one of Steinway's half-ton D-series concert grands. Yeah, right. It'll never work.

It took Alan Feinberg about 10 seconds to prove me wrong. Which was a surprise, in large part because my previous encounters with Feinberg had been his Argo series of American piano works. I'd been tremendously impressed by his red-blooded performance of Percy Grainger's transcription of Fauré's Après un Rêve, with lusciously rolling romantic chords. (American? Grainger emigrated to the US and became a citizen during WWI.)

Given that, and the fact that Feinberg's teacher at Juilliard, Mieczyslaw Munz, was a student of Busoni's, I was expecting piano playing beyond large-scale. Wrong-ola. To me, Feinberg's chaste, almost self-effacing playing on Basically Bull calls to mind Glenn Gould's Bach and André Watts's Scarlatti—not bad company. If he used the Steinway's pedals at all, this nonplayer couldn't hear it. The result is as close to period-correct as I can imagine a grand piano's being capable of. Bravo.

The usual online retailers have sound samples up. Listen to track 1, "A Sad Pavan: for these distracted times," which Thomas Tomkins composed a few days after the beheading of Charles I. Earlier in the English Civil War, Worcester Cathedral had been desecrated and its organ destroyed, and Tomkins's house nearby rendered uninhabitable by cannon shot. I and every musical friend I've stplayed this CD for decided within 10 seconds that the result musically justifies itself. Played with dynamic sensitivity, extreme virtuosity in finger control, and a certain humility in approach, a grand piano can offer valid insights into this music. The instrument's ability to sustain a note longer than can early keyboard instruments brings out harmonic complexities in ways plucking does not.

The sound is excellent. The venue, a former church in Virginia, is now the home of Sono Luminus Studios, the outfit that picked up the pieces of Dorian when that label went bankrupt. Even if the last solo-piano recording you really enjoyed was George Winston's December, I think you'll love Basically Bull. Highly recommended.

-- John Marks, Stereophile
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