Basically Bull (CD review)

Keyboard works of John Bull and others. Alan Feinberg, piano. Steinway & Sons 30019.

Yes, as you can see, the album’s title is playfully misleading. Instead of what you might expect at first glance, American classical pianist Alan Feinberg plays mostly the music of Englishman John Bull. Feinberg has won numerous awards and received four Grammy nominations, along with touring internationally and building an extensive discography. His interest lately appears to be in contrasting older music and new, with Basically Bull reaching all the way back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with piano pieces by Elizabethan composer, keyboardist, and organ builder John Bull (1562-1628) and several of Bull’s contemporaries. Feinberg does it up in a vivacious, lighthearted manner, providing a good deal (73:36) of lively fun, even if much of the music on the disc appears a little dour in tone.

As Mr. Feinberg explains it, “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 and passion.”

So, how famous was John Bull? He was among the most-celebrated keyboard composers of his day, contributed to the first-ever volume of keyboard music published in England, and may have even written the British de facto national anthem “God Save the Queen.” That famous. He was probably not, however, the inspiration for the character of the United Kingdom’s personification, that stout country gentleman used in political cartoons much as the U.S. uses Uncle Sam. That John Bull was the creation of Dr John Arbuthnot almost a century later.

Anyway, Bull wrote largely for the newfangled musical instrument called the virginal, a kind of early harpsichord and a precursor of the present-day piano. And he didn’t just write what everyone else was writing; he wrote new, daring, experimental tunes. Maybe it was partly because of his avant-garde musical style and partly because of his libertine lifestyle that Bull fled England in 1613. Certainly, though, his music doesn’t sound all that unconventional to us today; times change.

Bull’s keyboard music as represented on this disc runs high to galliards, spirited dances for two persons often written in triple rhythm, and various other slower, nimble, contrapuntal melodies, some serious, some religious, some whimsical. Of the twenty tracks on the disc, Bull wrote thirteen. The other numbers represent the work of Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), William Byrd (1543-1623), John Blitheman (c. 1525-1591), Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), and John Redford (d. 1547). The interesting thing to note is that none of it sounds as though it comes from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, at least not as Feinberg plays it. It sounds much later, much more inventive, even Romantic. Bull was, indeed, ahead of his time.

Alan Feinberg’s piano playing is smooth, mellow, dexterous, masterly, and although virtuosic at times, never ostentatious. You could say it’s comfortably cozy and inviting. He allows Bull’s ornamentation to speak for itself while maintaining a firm, flowing grasp of the music. There was no reason for him to have turned this into the Feinberg show; it’s Bull who’s clearly on display throughout. Of course, it might have been fun to hear Mr. Feinberg perform these pieces on an actual, period virginal, but this is, after all, a Steinway & Sons recording so he plays everything on a Steinway Model D grand piano. As Feinberg says above, that was a challenge of adaptation, yet it’s one he obviously overcame with little difficulty. The program and the playing provide something different and something most engaging.

Producer Dan Mercurio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded Basically Bull for Steinway & Sons at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia in January, 2013. They obtained an excellent piano sound, rich and resonant, with a light hall reflection to enhance the tone. The long decay time means a warmer, mellower, more realistic presence, making the sonics a delight to the audiophile as well as to the casual music lover.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa