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William BYRD (c.1540-1623)
John BULL (c.1562-1628)
The Visionaries of Piano Music
Kit Armstrong (piano)
rec. August 2020, Meistersaal, Berlin
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 486 0583 [70:56 + 64:12]

As background and context to this recording, pianist Kit Armstrong has provided his own liner notes. He’s chosen two contrasting figures from England’s Golden Age, William Byrd and John Bull, both composers he discovered as a child, and both he has revisited and included in his recitals. Both add up to a satisfying programme of contrasts - Byrd “of himself naturally disposed to gravity and piety”, and Bull “full of fire, anger, pride and sensuality”. In addition to discussing their contribution to keyboard music, he makes a sound case for his performing this repertoire on a modern piano.  A fascinating and scholarly booklet note, I concluded that Armstrong’s fluent and eloquent writing is as impressive as his pianism.

This is Armstrong’s debut album on the prestigious German yellow label; he’s previously recorded for Sony. Lauded as a child prodigy, he was a protégé of Alfred Brendel, who described him as “the greatest talent he has ever encountered”- high praise indeed. This is my first encounter with his playing, and what drew me to this 2 CD set was his choice of repertoire, English Renaissance keyboard music as opposed to another tread down the weary well-worn road of old tired war-horses.

Byrd and Bull were both Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal in the Golden Age of Elizabeth I and James I. Their contribution added greatly to the keyboard repertoire, but their styles were very different, and Armstrong aims to exploit this contrast. Byrd is generally more sober and refined, Bull offers more wild virtuosity.

There’s a buoyant quality in the more high-spirited pieces, which carries you along. Byrd’s Sellinger’s Round is one good example. The chiseled lines of Bull’s Fantasia are crisply articulated, and the persistent undercurrents set against the swirling right hand filigree gives the piece forward momentum. His Les Buffons comes to life with fantasy and imagination. Both composers wrote variations on the popular Elizabethan ballad Walsingham, and I’m pleased Armstrong offers both versions. Byrd’s Ut, mi, re Fantasia demonstrates Armstrong’s ability to define the different strands of the piece. The more plangent side of Bull is revealed in the Melancholy Pavan, whilst the Fantastic Pavan gives Armstrong free rein for his imagination to take flight.

Armstrong explores the piano’s potential to the full in expressive, dynamic and colouristic terms, and confronts the interpretive challenges head on with intelligence and insight. Clarity and definition of lines are handled adeptly and ornaments blend in idiomatically. In short, he shows great commitment to this music. Beautifully recorded, this superb album will certainly be one I’ll return to often.
Stephen Greenbank

Previous reviews: David McDade ~ Dominy Clements

William BYRD (c.1540-1623)
Prelude [0:40]
Pavan Sir William Petre [4:42]
Galliard [2:33]
The Flute and the Drum [1:48]
The Woods So Wild [3:37]
The Maiden’s Song [5:32]
John Come Kiss Me Now [5:22]
John BULL (c.1562-1628)
Fantasia [3:58]
Fantastic Pavan [4:43]
Fantastic Galliard [1:37]
Canons 51, 48, 39,7,15,114 [3:40]
Prelude [1:02]
Carol “Laet ons met herten reijne” [2:04]
Les Buffons [3:20]
Walsingham [13:13]
William BYRD
Pavan The Earl of Salisbury [2:03]
Galliard [1:17]
Second Galliard Mris Marye Brownlo [3:36]
The Bells [6:08]
Queen Elizabeth’s (Chromatic) Pavan [4:34]
My Grief [1:55]
William BYRD
O Mistress Mine [4:28]
The Second Ground [7:08]
Prelude [1:44]
Melancholy Pavan [4:13]
William BYRD
The Earl of Oxford’s March [3:11]
Ut, re, mi, da, sol, la [6:31]
Ut, mi, re [4:54]
Canons 68, 78, 79, 65,3,53 [3:28]
William BYRD
Walsingham [8:51]
Sellinger’s Round [4:19]
Fantasia on a Fugue of Sweelinck [3:53]
Telluris Ingens conditor [5:02]

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