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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
Reviewed as a download
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 486 0583 [70:53 + 64:09]

‘Extravagance’ is the word that comes to mind in trying to sum up this sumptuous double CD. The fact that it is performed on a modern piano is itself extravagant enough to have purists running for the hills. But extravagance is the word for these keyboard works by William Byrd and John Bull. The opening track is a flourish for the sake of a flourish and throws down the gauntlet for what is to follow. By extravagance I do not mean something cheap or gaudy. Kit Armstrong’s sense of play and fantasy matches those of his two chosen composers down to every little detail, like the threads of a Renaissance tapestry. For example, there is plenty of exuberance, but this is in no way the pianistic equivalent of athletics. Take Byrd’s evocation of warfare, The Battle. Armstrong resists the temptation to pound the ostinato figure that underpins the music in the bass for all its worth. Yet he also finds the necessary weight to bring the scene of an Elizabethan army on the march vividly before our ears. It is virtually the pianistic equivalent of having your cake and eating it too. Such wonders abound on every track.

There is extravagance, too, in the way, in Armstrong’s hands, Byrd and Bull burst out of the early music ghetto into the mainstream. Extravagant, too, to make more than two hours of their music your debut release into the big time with a major label like DG. Another Chopin recital it is not! And if the title of this collection, The Visionaries of Piano Music, isn’t extravagant I don’t know what is!

I suspect that Bull in particular was a kindred spirit of Armstrong’s. In his ebullient liner note, the pianist quotes a marvellously euphemistic description of the composer as “the man hath more music than honesty”. And my goodness did the man have music! The rather better-known Byrd is left with a rather tight-lipped moniker of “a stiff papist but a good subject” (according, that is, to Queen Elizabeth I). I presume Byrd’s renown spared him from his co-religionist’s fate of having to flee England for a career as an organist in Antwerp.

Armstrong writes of how he finds Bull’s music full of “fire, anger, pride and sensuality”. I think this provides an important clue to his attitude toward this music. He responds creatively and imaginatively as well as with musicological good sense. Bull’s music, even more than Byrd’s, is made to teem with invention and, most strikingly, with emotion.

Armstrong’s sleeve notes seem to me to reflect a dichotomy that runs through the pairing of these two composers and his approach to playing them. Every flight of fancy is balanced with taste, every imaginative leap is matched with solid research, wild John Bull is anchored with wise William Byrd. Armstrong makes some pretty bold assertions in his notes, yet his writing is full of scholarly insight. He is obviously helped by having these performances to back up his points in a way of which few academics can dream.

Time and again I was put in mind of the recent and equally successful reimagining by Phantasm of Bach - review - review - review. This shifting away from the instruments for which the music was intended throws up new ways of thinking about the music. Armstrong doesn’t approach the task as one of transcribing the music to the Romantic grand piano. Instead he relishes the ability of the piano to give individuality to the separate strands of the music. He mentions in his essay that the noteworthy thing about the only piece recorded here for which we have a set of registrations for performance on the organ, Bull’s Laet Ons Met Herten Reijne, is how often the colour of the music is changed, virtually phrase by phrase. He views this as licence to deploy a wide range of timbres on the piano. Whether the result stands up to academic scrutiny I will leave to others better qualified than myself. As a listening experience, I found it completely entrancing. It is worth commenting that what might be seen as the Byrd side of Armstrong’s musical personality is always tasteful even when he is at his boldest.

The only issue I have with this release is its title. The pianist makes a subtle point in his notes about the pioneering aspect of the keyboard music of these two composers being like those who first settle and make a life in a new land rather than those who first discover it. I do not think that this argument really justifies the title of the album, not least because playing these pieces on the piano in 2021 has more to do with Kit Armstrong than William Byrd or John Bull. It is a very small gripe but one that I hope doesn’t put off potential listeners, as it is a title that doesn’t reflect the care and creativity that have gone into this recording. It can be put down to another dimension of the extravagance that has shaped it since extravagance by definition must go over the top.

I was particularly grateful to Armstrong’s notes for drawing my attention to Bull’s canons which on the surface don’t sound like much, in contrast to the flourishes and drama of many other pieces. In their own quiet way, they are possibly the most excessive pieces here in their contrapuntal ambition. Ironically, Armstrong plays them very straight, not wishing to over-egg already very rich puddings.

The second selection of the Bull canons included precedes Byrd’s jaw-dropping set of 22 variations on Walsingham, a case of the Catholic composer nailing his denominational colours to the mast and simultaneously demonstrating that he owed nothing to anyone else in terms of brilliant creativity (and within the programme of this recording acting as companion piece to Bull’s own wild tilt at Walsingham heard earlier). This piece shows everything that is exceptional about this recording – intelligence, rhythmic subtlety, deep thought about the music and finger-cracking virtuosity. The way the tension of the music builds as the complexity of the variations increases is almost overwhelming. I was left feeling that I was listening to not just a technical feat but a personal credo on behalf of the composer. A little too fanciful? Yet Armstrong, both in words, and especially at the keyboard, seems to allow and encourage such fancy and I think it is in the scores too.

Two well-filled CDs might seem a little too much of a good thing but such is the breadth of Armstrong’s resources that I found that often I would come for a little and stay for a lot. I can only encourage the reader to sample this lavish banquet for themselves.

David McDade

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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