William Byrd & John Bull – Visionaries of Piano
Kit Armstrong (piano) (DG)
(scroll down for English review)
On his DG debut Kit Armstrong delivered something that I’d never associate with the label: the virginal music of William Byrd and John Bull played on piano. The disc title “Visionaries of Piano” was obviously a ploy to tell potential listeners that these music wasn’t as foreign as it seemed.
To me that’s the best thing of this double-album. Armstrong didn’t try to imitate the sound of the virginal or the harpsichord, nor did he make any attempt to present this as hip music. Instead of replicating Elizabethan aesthetics he obeyed the aesthetics of good piano playing: producing pleasant sounds and projecting emotions.
It seemed oxymoronic to say that most pieces here were variations. Without sonata form composers back then couldn’t get far without resorting to variations. The most notable sets on this album were probably the two sets on Walsingham. Armstrong gave us Bull’s (track 15) and Byrd’s (track 30) take for us to compare. Bull’s set was more polyphonic and more pyrotechnic while Byrd was milder and more natural in his melodic lines. I won’t say which was the better composer, though.
I also enjoyed the variations on The Maiden’s Song (track 6), The Buffons (track 14) and the Bells (track 19). Adagio lovers should definitely try the Pavans (tracks 2, 9, 16, 20, 25).
Nevertheless I don’t think a casual listener could sit through 135 minutes of Byrd and Bull, no matter how natural or pleasant Armstrong played them. Still I totally agree with Armstrong’s decision in presenting such a big chunk, as those willing to listen through would do so. You just can’t please everyone. But I think this album would benefit pianists more as it would be too much for them to take up the harpsichord. This recording gave an ample guide on how to play this worthy music on the piano.