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Reviewer :
Philip Kennicott

Pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar makes no effort to sharpen the sound of his instrument or play with greater incision when rendering the works of William Byrd on the modern piano. He offers a generous selection of material, the pavans and galliards from My Lady Nevell’s Book and the Parthenia, interspersed with 15 sets of variations. In his booklet notes, he raises a set of philosophical questions about performing this music on modern instruments: ‘When playing old music on modern instruments, is what is “lost” too much? Is what is “gained” inappropriate or irrelevant?’


But these questions don’t seem to haunt his interpretations, which are firmly pianistic, without exploiting the extremes of the piano’s expressive possibilities. The overarching aesthetic is relaxed and easygoing, with the music unfolding with deliberation and clarity. Ornamentation is effective but not tightly wound. His trills and shakes don’t snap with elastic energy but unfold effectively, like everything else.


This unforced approach begins to cloy in some of the longer sets of variations, where you wish he might have taken some of the liberties that Kit Armstrong indulges in his recording of works by Byrd and John Bull, also performed on the modern piano (DG, 8/21). Contrast the expressive range of Byrd’s The Bells rendered by Armstrong and Pienaar: both performances begin with a sense of profound calm but Armstrong complicates and agitates that sentiment far more vigorously than Pienaar. Armstrong underscored what he felt was the modernity of this music. Pienaar lets the music inhabit a timeless space, orderly and agreeable but not terribly dramatic.

I miss a sense of urgency in these performances. There is equipoise aplenty, everything balanced and in its place. In the variations, that is essential. But much of the music heard here is rooted in the dance, and these recordings remain mostly earthbound.

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