J Bull • Byrd – The Visionaries of Piano Music
J Bull: Walsingham – 30 Variations; Fantastic Pavan; Fantasia etc. Byrd: The Bells; The Woods so Wild – 14 Variations; The Maiden’s Song – 8 Variations; John Come Kiss Me Now – 16 Variations etc.
Kit Armstrong (piano)
DG 486 0583 134:00 mins (2 discs)
I first met Kit Armstrong when he was a child of nine, playing his own compositions and creating his own abstruse mathematical games while studying physics at an American university. With compositions and ideas pouring out of him, he’s still at 29 a miraculous child, and this double-disc recording is par for the course.
The title puts it all in a nutshell. In his booklet note, Armstrong wastes no space debating the piano’s suitability for works written before it existed: what interests him is the groundbreaking achievement of these two great keyboard composers. Despite their different temperaments – Byrd ‘naturally disposed to gravity and piety,’ while Bull’s life was metaphorically an ongoing car-crash – in Armstrong’s view they co-created a musical universe. While Byrd’s music offers eloquent understatement, Bull’s is characterised by ‘fire, anger, pride, sensuality’; together they ‘elevated instrumental music to become…vocal music’s equal in refinement, dignity and expressivity.’
These composers’ pavans, galliards, canons and variations are usually relegated to encores by adventurous pianists, so to get a square meal of them is a treat. Armstrong’s playing is both expressive and technically brilliant, a combination here in constant demand as the ornamentation is intricate and often dizzyingly fast. And they run the emotional gamut, with variations by both composers of the lovely Catholic recusant song ‘Walsingham’ representing the pious extreme. So much beauty and ingenuity is packed into these works that I shall listen to them over and over again.