Classical Music Reviews
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Kit Armstrong

Grand Hall, Lee Shau Kee Lecture Centre / University of Hong Kong / Hong Kong / Dec 11, 2022 / Ernest Wan /

For his debut recital in Hong Kong, 30-year-old pianist and composer Kit Armstrong presented a programme that, at first glance, seemed a mere attempt at maximum eclecticism, consisting as it does of music ranging from that of the Renaissance all the way to that of our own time, indeed of Armstrong’s own invention. As his softly spoken introduction revealed, however, the first half of the programme comprises works by composers of an “Apollonian” disposition, the earliest of them being William Byrd, whereas the second half spotlights more personal, subjective utterances, the earliest from John Bull. Byrd and Bull were both “Jacobethan” composers whose pieces for virginals, according to Armstrong, created the world of solo keyboard music as we know it.

His longstanding conviction that this four-century-old music works on the modern piano is amply borne out by his playing. While the listener could easily imagine a performance on the harpsichord of Byrd’s The Earl of Oxford’s March just as sprightly and joyous as Armstrong’s account, his rendition of The Bells by the same composer, essentially a set of variations on a ground that simply alternates between two adjacent notes, as well as Bull’s Melancholy Pavan and Fantasia (No. 108 from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book), both of which start unassumingly but later dazzle with running passages, was so colourful and luminous as to exude a sort of quiet ecstasy inconceivable with earlier instruments.

Kit Armstrong. Courtesy of HKU MUSE.

The concert opened imposingly with the emphatic three-note figure that begins and then pervades Saint-Saëns’s Allegro appassionato in C-sharp minor, which was performed with remarkable fleetness and facility. Armstrong’s Mozart Sonata K. 331 was unsentimental and unafraid of dynamic and textural contrasts, though the occasional lack of breathing space between phrases imparted an impression of haste, especially in the predominantly lyrical variations of the first movement.

In the second half of the concert, Armstrong played his intriguing Études de dessin of 2017, which he said reflects his love of traditional Chinese paintings. It was not difficult to visualise in the course of the performance a scroll unfolding and disclosing actions or effects of ink as varied as the musical gestures are. The last sounds, unlike any heard before, even provide an analogue of the application of a seal, which may or may not be regarded as part of the artwork proper.

Next was his account of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, fast and furious, recalling Artur Schnabel’s, but full of dramatic intensity resembling no one else, with vertiginous runs, billowy arpeggios and, during the recitative, monolithic chords sounding like blows of fate. Like Schnabel, Armstrong is one of the few performers who blast off the rising scale in the penultimate bar without pause, achieving a thrilling effect of apparent defiance while in fact simply doing no more than the score indicates. The recital culminated in Liszt’s Variations on a Theme of Bach, S. 180, which uses a chromatically descending ground bass by the German master and also contains a recitative section, thus integrating elements of other works on

the programme. Armstrong made the best case for this problematic piece, in which the desolation of bereavement is replaced at the end with the consolation of religion, by refusing to shy away from its extremes, from the mood swings in the wrenching lament to the sonorous affirmation of faith in the final chorale.

The encores were Bach’s chorale prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele and, in a return to the tonality of the Saint-Saëns that began the concert, Chopin’s Étude Op. 10 No. 4, played respectively with mesmeric poise and with phenomenal speed, clarity and control. Armstrong’s impeccable technique, sophisticated programming, refreshing take on the standard repertoire and composition of engaging new music, as well as his passionate exploration and stimulating interpretation of unfamiliar or early music, mark him out as a rare compleat musician.

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