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Kit Armstrong|William Byrd & John Bull: The Visionaries of Piano Music

William Byrd & John Bull: The Visionaries of Piano Music

Kit Armstrong

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This double-album recital from young US pianist Kit Armstrong must rank as one of the more unexpected recent keyboard releases of recent years. The English virginal music of William Byrd (1540-1623) and John Bull (1562-1628) performed on a modern concert grand? Can that even work? Well, the short answer is yes.

It’s a great pairing of composers for starters. Sober-minded William Byrd, whose keyboard music strove for balance and eloquent understatement through ambitious fusings of song, dance, complex counterpoint, and the occasional subtle reference to his predicament as a closet Catholic in Protestant England; then renegade John Bull, another Catholic, but this time one who fled English shores in 1613 and ended up as cathedral organist in Antwerp (although not necessarily just for religious persecution, when even the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote of him, “The man hath more music than honesty”), whose English-period music at least is often of a bold, emotionally visceral, semi-chaos. Plus, Armstrong’s running order makes it deliciously plain where the first hop from Byrd to Bull appears, Bull’s Fantasia from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book shouting his presence with its left hand’s rebellious dissonance and off-kilter metre.

Still, ultimately it’s not the programming but Armstrong’s thoughtful translation of this music onto the modern piano that makes this recital such a sonic feast. Firstly, anyone expecting the clipped articulation we take as the standard “period” approach these days will be in for a surprise, because while the textures are as lucidly airy and unpedalled as you’d want, he also sustains his notes for as long as they’re written in the manuscripts – his argument, outlined in his own erudite and extensive sleeve note, being the “manifold instances of note lengths painstakingly notated”. He has also largely emulated the virginal’s inability to modulate its dynamics, trusting instead in the composers’ original recourse to simply increase or decrease the number of notes being played; and even when he does genuinely apply a little more pressure, it’s so subtly done that the overall impression is still more of a shift of colour than of dynamic. And talking of colour and intelligent rule-breaking, he does also occasionally enlist the piano’s capabilities, such as the pedal blurs he brings to his ear-prickingly evocative The Flute and the Drum.

Then there’s the ear-popping virtuosity continually on display over the sorts of pieces that Charles Burney summed up in his 1776 A General History of Music as “so difficult, that it would hardly be possible to find a master in Europe who would undertake to play one of them at the end of a month’s practice”: the jewelled clarity and technical control of Armstrong’s articulation; the sparkling flow of his rapid passagework; his ability to make a line dance or sing; the delicacy of his ornamentations; the way he can draw your ear to one or more exquisitely phrased voice from amid a sea of surrounding runs; and all this technical and musical brilliance so lightly worn. For a wonderful example of all this, listen to Byrd’s John Come Kiss Me Now variations.

Finally, I’ve already mentioned Armstrong’s self-written sleeve notes, but I want to emphasise what essential reading they are. Beyond his thoughts on the musical personalities and legacy of Byrd and Bull, and his scholarly arguments for his various performance decisions (including, by the way, on his satisfyingly idiomatic tempo choices), the story they tell of loving, intensely musical, forensically probing exploration demonstrates exactly why this programme and set of interpretations has ended up feeling so ground-breaking and unmissable.
© Charlotte Gardner/Qobuz

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William Byrd & John Bull: The Visionaries of Piano Music

Kit Armstrong

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1
Byrd: Prelude (Parthenia 1; MB 27/1)
00:00:40

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William BYRD, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

2
Byrd: Pavan “Sir William Petre” (Parthenia 2; MB 27/3a)
00:04:41

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William BYRD, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

3
Byrd: Galliard (Parthenia 3; MB 27/3b)
00:02:32

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William BYRD, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

The Battle (Nevell 4; MB 28/94) (William Byrd)

4
The Flute and the Drum
00:01:48

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William BYRD, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

5
Byrd: The Woods so Wild - 14 Variations (Fitzwilliam 67; MB 28/85)
00:03:36

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William BYRD, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

6
Byrd: The Maiden's Song - 8 Variations (Fitzwilliam 126; Nevell 28; MB 28/82)
00:05:31

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William BYRD, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

7
Byrd: John Come Kiss Me Now - 16 Variations (Fitzwilliam 10; MB 28/81)
00:05:21

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William BYRD, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

8
Bull: Fantasia (Fitzwilliam 108)
00:03:57

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

9
Bull: Fantastic Pavan (Fitzwilliam 34; MB 19/86a)
00:04:42

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

10
Bull: Fantastic Galliard (Fitzwilliam 35; MB 19/86b)
00:01:37

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

11
Bull: Canons 51 - 48 - 39 - 7 - 15 - 114 (ÖNB Mus. Hs. 17771)
00:03:40

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

12
Bull: Prelude "Laet ons met herten reijne" (MB 14/56; BL Add. MS 23623 f. 65)
00:01:01

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

13
Bull: Carol "Laet ons met herten reijne" (MB 14/56; BL Add. MS 23623 f. 65)
00:02:03

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

14
Bull: Les Buffons - 15 Variations (MB 19/101; BL Add. MS 23623 f. 22)
00:03:20

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

15
Bull: Walsingham - 30 Variations (Fitzwilliam 1; MB 19/85)
00:13:13

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

16
Byrd: Pavan “The Earl of Salisbury” (Parthenia 6; MB 27/15a)
00:02:02

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William Byrd, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

17
Byrd: Galliard (Parthenia 7; MB 27/15b)
00:01:17

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William Byrd, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

18
Byrd: Second Galliard “Mris Marye Brownlo” (Parthenia 8; MB 27/15c)
00:03:36

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William Byrd, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

19
Byrd: The Bells (Fitzwilliam 69; MB 27/38)
00:06:07

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William Byrd, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

20
Bull: Queen Elizabeth’s (Chromatic) Pavan (MB 19/87a)
00:04:33

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

21
Bull: My Grief (Fitzwilliam 190; MB 19/139)
00:01:55

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

22
Byrd: O Mistress Mine - 6 Variations (Fitzwilliam 66; MB 28/83)
00:04:28

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William Byrd, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

23
Byrd: The Second Ground - 16 Variations (Nevell 30; MB 27/42)
00:07:07

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William Byrd, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

24
Bull: Prelude (Fitzwilliam 43)
00:01:44

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

25
Bull: Melancholy Pavan (MB 19/67a)
00:04:13

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

26
Byrd: The Earl of Oxford’s March (Fitzwilliam 259; Nevell 3; MB 28/93)
00:03:10

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William BYRD, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

27
Byrd: Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la - Fantasia (Fitzwilliam 101; Nevell 9; MB 28/64)
00:06:30

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William BYRD, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

28
Byrd: Ut, mi, re - Fantasia (Fitzwilliam 102; MB 28/65)
00:04:53

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William BYRD, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

29
Bull: Canons 68 - 78 - 79 - 65 - 3 - 53 (ÖNB Mus. Hs. 17771)
00:03:28

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

30
Byrd: Walsingham - 22 Variations (Fitzwilliam 68; Nevell 31; MB 27/8)
00:08:50

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William BYRD, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

31
Byrd: Sellinger's Round - 9 Variations (Fitzwilliam 64; Nevell 37; MB 28/84)
00:04:18

Kit Armstrong, Piano - William BYRD, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

32
Bull: Fantasia on a Fugue of Sweelinck (MB 14/4; BL Add. MS 23623 f. 52)
00:03:52

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

33
Bull: Telluris ingens conditor: Nos. 1, 2, 3, 6, 7 (MB 14/47; BL Add. Ms 23623 f. 170)
00:05:02

Kit Armstrong, Piano - John Bull, Composer

℗ 2021 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

Album Description

This double-album recital from young US pianist Kit Armstrong must rank as one of the more unexpected recent keyboard releases of recent years. The English virginal music of William Byrd (1540-1623) and John Bull (1562-1628) performed on a modern concert grand? Can that even work? Well, the short answer is yes.

It’s a great pairing of composers for starters. Sober-minded William Byrd, whose keyboard music strove for balance and eloquent understatement through ambitious fusings of song, dance, complex counterpoint, and the occasional subtle reference to his predicament as a closet Catholic in Protestant England; then renegade John Bull, another Catholic, but this time one who fled English shores in 1613 and ended up as cathedral organist in Antwerp (although not necessarily just for religious persecution, when even the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote of him, “The man hath more music than honesty”), whose English-period music at least is often of a bold, emotionally visceral, semi-chaos. Plus, Armstrong’s running order makes it deliciously plain where the first hop from Byrd to Bull appears, Bull’s Fantasia from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book shouting his presence with its left hand’s rebellious dissonance and off-kilter metre.

Still, ultimately it’s not the programming but Armstrong’s thoughtful translation of this music onto the modern piano that makes this recital such a sonic feast. Firstly, anyone expecting the clipped articulation we take as the standard “period” approach these days will be in for a surprise, because while the textures are as lucidly airy and unpedalled as you’d want, he also sustains his notes for as long as they’re written in the manuscripts – his argument, outlined in his own erudite and extensive sleeve note, being the “manifold instances of note lengths painstakingly notated”. He has also largely emulated the virginal’s inability to modulate its dynamics, trusting instead in the composers’ original recourse to simply increase or decrease the number of notes being played; and even when he does genuinely apply a little more pressure, it’s so subtly done that the overall impression is still more of a shift of colour than of dynamic. And talking of colour and intelligent rule-breaking, he does also occasionally enlist the piano’s capabilities, such as the pedal blurs he brings to his ear-prickingly evocative The Flute and the Drum.

Then there’s the ear-popping virtuosity continually on display over the sorts of pieces that Charles Burney summed up in his 1776 A General History of Music as “so difficult, that it would hardly be possible to find a master in Europe who would undertake to play one of them at the end of a month’s practice”: the jewelled clarity and technical control of Armstrong’s articulation; the sparkling flow of his rapid passagework; his ability to make a line dance or sing; the delicacy of his ornamentations; the way he can draw your ear to one or more exquisitely phrased voice from amid a sea of surrounding runs; and all this technical and musical brilliance so lightly worn. For a wonderful example of all this, listen to Byrd’s John Come Kiss Me Now variations.

Finally, I’ve already mentioned Armstrong’s self-written sleeve notes, but I want to emphasise what essential reading they are. Beyond his thoughts on the musical personalities and legacy of Byrd and Bull, and his scholarly arguments for his various performance decisions (including, by the way, on his satisfyingly idiomatic tempo choices), the story they tell of loving, intensely musical, forensically probing exploration demonstrates exactly why this programme and set of interpretations has ended up feeling so ground-breaking and unmissable.
© Charlotte Gardner/Qobuz

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