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Kit Armstrong (piano)
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Piano Sonata in A-flat major [11:24]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Années de pèlerinage:
Au bord d’une source, (Première année, Suisse, S160), (1848-1854) [4:38]
Sonetto 123 del Petrarca
(Deuxième année; Italie, S161) (1837-1848) [5:19]
Aux cyprès de la Villa d'Este II (Thrénodie; Troisième année, S163) [1877] [9:50]
Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este, Troisième année, S163 (1877) [8:56]
Piano Sonata in B minor (1853) [38:50]
A la Chapelle Sixtine, “Miserere d’Allegri et Ave verum corpus de Mozart” (1862) [2:56]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Fantasia, K475 (1785) [12:56]
Suite in C major, K399 (1782) II. Allemande [4:01]
Rec. live, 2019, Margravial Opera House, Bayreuth
Produced BFMI in co-production with ZDF and in collaboration with Arte.
Sound: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD MA 5:0, Picture: DTS-HD (1080i;16:9)
C-MAJOR 756604 Blu-ray [95 mins]

Kit Armstrong (b. 1992) has been described by some “as the most remarkable phenomenon in today’s world of classical music”. Hyperbole maybe, but this Blu-ray disc is mighty impressive. Armstrong is noted for immense intelligence, musicality and technical skill, and is now a mature artist whose star appears to be burning bright. In 2011, Glyn Pursglove in a “Seen and Heard review at St. David’s Hall Cardiff, stated “It can’t be a common occurrence that a conductor, Christoph von Dohnányi should be more than five times older than the soloist with whom he is working. It was readily evident that Armstrong (who looks less than his seventeen years) shared Dohnányi’s affinity with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 and the results of their collaboration were largely satisfying”. From watching this entertaining and well thought out Blu-Ray, I can say, that he still doesn’t look his age and has a real gift of conveying his knowledge and passion of the music. Alfred Brendel, who has guided Armstrong as teacher and mentor since 2005, ascribes to him “an understanding of the great piano works that combines freshness and subtlety, emotion and intellect”. Brendel gave one of the finest preludes to Beethoven’s “Choral Symphony”, conducted by Kurt Masur, when he performed the Liszt Sonata in the first half of a Prom in 1989; a choice of programming which was sheer genius.

One important technical point is that there is no scene-select menu. I found this very frustrating on my B&O Blu-Ray 5:1 system and this despite pressing, with increasing exasperation, my remote control. In the end I watched the final three works on a more modest machine rather than having to play the whole programme. I also have an aversion, shared with Barenboim and Brendel, towards music used as background to the open logos.

The programme begins with Armstrong walking towards the opera house and entering by the heavy wooden doors. The “Opera House” in Bayreuth, birthplace of Liszt and son-in-law Wagner, has a very showy décor, and a “Trompe-l'œil” backdrop that complements the style of the interior. Wagner was famously against places like these, which were built for fashionable audiences to observe each other dressed up. Paying attention to the action on stage was only second place in importance.

During the first half, Armstrong plays on a small older piano manufactured in Bayreuth, on the stage itself. Before the Liszt sonata he moves to a newer, more modern model on what I think is the trap over the orchestra pit. This gives the evening a varied sound and image.

I am totally unfamiliar with Wagner’s piano sonata. Reading the Blu-Ray notes for this release beforehand, I discover that it was written in 1853 during his exile in Switzerland and dedicated to his most famous muse, the poet Mathilde Wesendonck. It was her poetry that Wagner set for the much recorded “Wesendonck Lieder”, two of which, ‘Im Treibhaus’ and ‘Träume’ have themes later incorporated into “Tristan und Isolde”. A prized CD has that great Wagnerian, Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the “Wesendonck Lieder” with the legendary Kirsten Flagstadt in the Maida Vale Studios in December 1952 (available on SOMM, as part of their invaluable “Beecham Collection”). Incidentally, one of these days, preferably soon, there should be a complete collection of Beecham’s recordings, re-mastered and annotated. After all, collecting his recordings, is very time-consuming, costly and involves duplication.

Wagner’s short one-movement work (clocking in at 11 minutes) starts with a solemn March which brings to mind the ‘pilgrim’ theme that opens Tannhäuser. However, this theme develops into something more fitting to the style of romantic composers such as Schubert and Chopin. Armstrong plays this with suitable restraint; a few wrong notes near the start of the development are clearly noticeable, but they are soon forgotten in this engaging gem. It would be a good “Guess the Composer” piece and it certainly surprised me.

After this, comes a sequence of four pieces from Liszt’s ‘years of pilgrimage’. Here, Armstrong is able to show his range, from delicate to sprightly. The third piece ‘aux cyprès …’ is particularly immersive in its slow, grand and full-bodied nature.

I first began to appreciate Liszt’s B minor sonata whilst watching a recording of the short ballet ‘Marguerite and Armand’ created for the Royal Ballet by Frederick Ashton in 1963. I had previously just “not got” Liszt, thinking his music overblown. Clifford Curzon’s 1963, studio recording of the Sonata, which I initially had on LP, opened my ears to the work’s many qualities. This piece is able to hold the attention for an unforgiving half hour of passion and heartbreak beginning and ending with the unmistakable sound of a heartbeat. This is definitely the showpiece of Armstrong’s whole concert in which the audience is transfixed for this exhausting work.

To conclude, Armstrong turns to the pure and spirit-cleansing music of Mozart. The Fantasia is a particular favourite Mozart piano piece and, to my mind illustrates his skill and genius in every bar. Mozart’s piano solo work can be underrated but not by me. I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing this previously in the fine set by Leon McCawley, a Record of the Month from 2008 (review), and a greatly enjoyable release, last year, from Paul Badura-Skoda, in a 2010 recording where he duetted in other Mozart with Jörg Demus (review); two sets I commend. I felt Armstrong brought out the anticipation of Beethoven, which is perhaps unsurprising in view of his live performance, referred to above. This is followed by Liszt’s transcription of the sublime “Ave verum Corpus” which was sung by the Christ Church male Scholars at my father’s funeral in 2001. Whilst the transcription can in no way be a substitute for the effect of a choir, it is very moving and here, with Kit Armstrong’s evident sincerity, commanded the rapt attention of the audience. The last item, Allemande, is an intimate movement and ends this recital in a reflective mood. These three pieces help to wind the evening to a satisfying close.

All in all, this is a highly engaging recital, with fine sound - especially in surround - and rejoices in subtle camera work. I did have doubts, initially whether a Blu-Ray of solo piano playing would bear repeating but I did so with pleasure and will certainly do so when I want some solace. I will follow Armstrong’s career with interest and hope to have the opportunity to hear more.

David R Dunsmore

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