Kit Armstrong is perhaps as singular and prodigious a talent as the “proximate gods of this creation myth”, those virtuosos of the virginals, William Byrd (1543-1623) and John Bull (1562-1628). Indeed, the 29-year-old composer, pianist, polymath, protégé of Alfred Brendel and former child prodigy’s extraordinary intellect and imagination invite comparison with those of Charles Rosen and Glenn Gould, who himself revered Byrd’s, as well as near-contemporary Orlando Gibbon’s, keyboard music.
Armstrong – whose previous recordings include music by Liszt, Bach, Ligeti and his own music – is equally an ardent advocate of performing the music of the past on the modern piano without slavishly adhering to modish notions of authenticity.
I might take issue with Armstrong’s assertion, in an eloquent accompanying essay, that the keyboard as a solo instrument “is in a class by itself” because “it allows a single person… to embody musical utterance of fully developed quality”. I love the ability of solo bowed or plucked string instruments, for example, to evoke entire worlds with minimal means. Think of Bach’s solo music for violin and cello.
I also love the lute and its music, which are more readily identified with the so-called Golden Age of English Music relevant here than that of the virginals or organ. (I am thinking only of instrumental music. The excellence of the same period’s vocal music is self-evident.) But I absolutely adore the keyboard music of the Apollonian Byrd and Dionysian Bull (are their namesakes of the animal world a hint?), especially as performed here with that gloriously positive sense of irony that arises from performing centuries-old music on a modern piano. “After all,” writes Armstrong, “is it not one of the time-honoured sources of rapture in the world to appreciate an artwork beyond how it was first designed to be appreciated?”
Somewhat felicitously, at around the time this recording was sent to me for review, a new edition of Robert Burton’s sprawling, idiosyncratic literary masterpiece The Anatomy of Melancholy was published. I thus found a ready analogy for, and points of comparison with, Armstrong’s equally sprawling, equally obsessive, equally idiosyncratic compendium of dances, fantasias, canons and sets of variations by two other great geniuses of the English Renaissance.
Byrd’s variations on The Woods So Wild, O Mistress Mine and Walsingham, and his Pavan the Earl of Salisbury. Bull’s Fantastic Pavan and Galliard, Queen Elizabeth’s Chromatic Pavan, Melancholy Pavan and Fantasia on a Fugue of Sweelinck. Here are rolled chords and mellifluous melodies, the latter sometimes joined in polyphonic bliss, all aflutter with shakes and other ornaments or subjected to relentless divisions and the distorting mirror of motivic metamorphosis. Here, too, are Armstrong’s incisive argument and rich rhetoric, exemplified by his preparedness to utilise every resource of the modern piano at his disposal.
The effect sometimes borders on the symphonic – miraculous really, given the often sparse musical textures. At other times, and perhaps more satisfyingly, Armstrong evokes a vocal consort, or a viol consort with vocal soloist. Or, best of all, a lute.
Composers: William Byrd, John Bull
Works: Piano Works
Performer: Kit Armstrong
Label: DG 4860583