Keyboard music that sounds better on the orchestra?

For some reason, until the other day I had avoided listening to the Elizabethan Suite by Sir John Barbirolli. It is an orchestration of five keyboard pieces:

The Earl of Salisbury’s Pavane (Byrd)
The Irishe His Hoane (anon)
A Toye (Farnaby)
Giles Farnaby’s Dream (Farnaby)
The King’s Hunt (Bull)

The first comes from Parthenia and the others are from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.

I discovered that the full beauty of the first piece comes across in the version for strings much more impressively than I think it could be made on our instrument, and I have certainly never heard such an exciting performance of the King’s Hunt on harpsichord as on Barbirolli’s recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. As arranged and conducted by Barbirolli it goes at a decent lick and the addition of horns makes it much more realistic than I have ever heard in a keyboard performance; one can almost see the hunt in action.

Not “authenicke”, perhaps; but in my opinion an object lesson in interpreting what the composer had in mind.

There are recordings on Youtube, but not the one I have.


With all due respect, I cannot share David’s enthusiasm for Barbirolli’s orchestrations. Is he suffering from an overdose of Mahler?
In fact, I think that what troubles many harpsichord perfs of Byrd’s Pavane is their attempt to sound like Barbirolli.

As for the King’s Hunt, I admire 2 hps perfs greatly, those by Leonhardt & Van Asperen. They have an incisive vigor that I miss in the Barbirolli perf I listened to - not sure whether it’s the same one that inspired David’s admiration. They also realize some things that Byrd notated, e.g. hps sounds like arpeggiation & other textures, that I would wish to hear, but cannot, in Barbirolli’s orchestration. His use of horns is almost obligatory, of course, but it’s also overkill. Byrd’s suggestion is sufficient, IMNSHO. And a single performer on the hps {e.g. Leonhardt or Van Asperen} can often realize greater flexibility than a conductor can wring from his orchestra, no matter how gifted s/he may be.


Not sure if there are several very distinct Barbirolli interpretations of the Elizabethan suite? I found a 1961 recording with the Halle orchestra, of the Earl of Salisbury’s Pavane. I find it similar to the soupier bits of Respighi. Not my cup of peach juice. I don’t imagine that any rhythmic subtleties, eg. the cross-rhythms of the Irish Ho-Hoane, can come across well in such heavy playing.

Anyway, I would make a counter-proposal to David’s proposal. Music for orchestra (or viol consort, etc) can sound better without these instruments, if the keyboard conjures up a vivid impression of them, because we can find delight in our identification of the sound of the absent instruments. (I suspect this is a synaesthetic aha-experience.) Several miniatures and fantasias for virginal sketch sound impressions (pealing bells, horns, viols, trumpets, pipes or bagpipes, barking dogs, thunder and lightening) which are by their nature not at all virginal-like. Pleasure for the listener consists in catching these impressions as the player ingeniously evokes them. So the point is that the sounds are mimicked as they shine through the music, rather than being fully acoustically present. This can also be true more broadly for keyboard arrangements of vocal works; they evoke familiar songs and emotions we have heard performed by human voices, though these are only present in our mind.

Can you give the details of the recording you have?

The recording I have is with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (19 May 1967). I prefer it to the Hallé or NYPSO versions that I found on You Tube. As far as I can discover, it is currently only available in a big box set with all of JB’s other EMI recordings. I could make mp3s of the two movements and put them temporarily online if others want to listen.


yes, I’d be interested to hear the 1967 version. :kissing:

For a short time, .mp3 or .ogg files of The King’s Hunt and The Earl of Salisbury’s Pavane can be listened to here – for “fair use” research purposes only… :smiley:

NB: for reasons outside my control iOS and iPadOS will not play mp3 or ogg files; I have not tried MACOS.


Thanks David- these recordings are certainly tighter than the 1961 recording I heard. I think they were good for their situation and time, but really don’t prefer them to sensitive performances on harpsichord.

To blend out the question of non-historical instruments and big/small performance situations, one could ask which features ‘sound better’ in Robert Parson’s 5-part In Nomine arrangement, in his setting for viols, or in the keyboard version of it ascribed to Byrd, FWB ii (No. 140): (there are also three 17th-c. transcriptions for lute). Or would this piece maybe suit a brass band? It is also played on recorders.


Pickett David Pickett Regular
March 14

For a short time, .mp3 or .ogg files of The King’s Hunt and The Earl of Salisbury’s Pavane can be listened to here – for “fair use” research purposes only… :smiley: