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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]

Listed in Wikipedia as a “former child prodigy”, Kit Armstrong has indeed built up a remarkable CV both as a pianist and a composer. This recording is his debut for Deutsche Grammophon, though he has already recorded for labels including Sony Classical. Two CDs of William Byrd and John Bull might seem like quite a project, but the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book alone lists 69 keyboard pieces for Byrd, and 37 for Bull, so there is plenty more from this and other sources: Pieter-Jan Belder’s edition of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book for Brilliant Classics recorded on the harpsichord (review) coming out at 15 CDs.

As far as I am concerned there is only one minor controversy in Kit Armstrong’s collection, which is titled The Visionaries of Piano Music. The piano had of course not been invented in the 16th and early 17th centuries, but I don’t think we should get too hot under the collar over what is more than likely just a marketing decision (‘if we say Keyboard people will think it has something to do with computers…’). As has been said elsewhere, good musicality is much more important than any attempt at authenticity, valuable as this can be, and Kit Armstrong has musicality to spare. Players of Bull and Byrd’s day would have used whatever was to hand; virginals, harpsichord, clavichord or organ, and no doubt they would have composed different music had they been seated in front of a modern grand piano; but they weren’t, and so they didn’t.

Bringing Bull and Byrd together in recordings or concert programmes is nothing new, and their richly ornamented style of keyboard writing and treatments of harmony and dissonance are similar enough to turn this recording into an organic whole - you can just listen and enjoy, and maybe refer to the track listing if there is a piece that piques your interest for some reason or another. In his booklet essay Armstrong writes at length on the music, providing useful pointers to the character and content of particular pieces. His comments on the status of these composers can sail close to hyperbole, but with arguments based on sound ideas: “What Byrd and Bull created, in concert and discord, was a vision of keyboard music that did no less than elevate instrumental music to become, for once, vocal music’s equal in refinement, dignity, expressivity, and substance.” The playing here is respectful, but also lively and entertaining rather than overly reverential. Armstrong revels in opportunities for virtuoso display, such as Byrd’s variations John come kiss me now, but also uses effective colours in the more funereal pieces, such as what sounds like an una corda muffling for Bull’s My grief.

It is quite tricky to find pianists who go all-in for this period. Daniel-Ben Pienaar’s The Long 17th Century: A Cornucopia of Early Keyboard Music on the Avie label (review) would make a fine companion to Kit Armstrong’s recording, and it is always intriguing to compare two different players’ approaches to something like Byrd’s prosaically titled but richly rar-reaching Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la. Pienaar’s touch is a little crisper, but also slower and also inclined to introduce a little delay into the right hand, which you may or may not appreciate, or even notice. Armstrong drives the music a little harder and is more respectful of verticality, but there is plenty to appreciate in both. Glenn Gould famously recorded William Byrd along with Orlando Gibbons, but Gould was a kind of ‘visionary of piano music’ in his own right, and Armstrong probably does well to avoid his ruminative style. In short, I welcome this fine recording, with much applause for an artist who does something other than do their own version of one all-to-frequently-heard war horse or another.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: David McDade

CD 1
William BYRD (ca. 1540-1623)
I. Prelude [0:40]
II. Pavan, 'Sir William Petre' [4:42]
III. 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 (ca. 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
VI. Pavan, 'The Earl of Salisbury' [2:03]
VII. Galliard [1:17]
VIII. Second Galliard, 'Mris Marye Brownlo' [3:36]
The Bells [6:08]
CD 2
Queen Elizabeth's (Chromatic) Pava [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, Fa, 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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