This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.
Within moments of the opening bars of Kit Armstrong’s rendering of Bach’s Goldberg Variations at the Walter Reade Theater on November 10th, I knew I was bearing witness to a truly special performance. Armstrong, Wunderkind and protege of the great Alfred Brendel, plays the Goldberg Variations with an artistry and wisdom that belies his youth. The 27-year-old, who has played the Variations since childhood, hears the life in each voice, allows each its moment, and in fact, permits the small bendings of time that must occur to focus our attention upon a moment of melody or figuration. Never, however, to the detriment of the larger integrity of the piece. His awareness of the balances in Bach’s masterwork is deep and sound.
Armstrong’s playing is tender, sensitive, yet fiery and playful when the work calls for it. The grand emotional range of the Goldberg Variations is given expression in ways that remain tasteful and true to the form, yet not without surprises. While the technical playing is as perfectly rendered as one can imagine, it enjoys a feeling of spontaneity and creation, as well, as though truly new discoveries are made with each performance. With respect to the landmarks that guide us through the piece, Armstrong’s recitations of the canons are perceptive and musical, making the most of inner voices, calling our attention to wonderful nuances of rhythm and melody throughout. The variations of larger scale, including the penultimate quodlibet, are laid out with an inherent understanding of the dramas contained within, an awareness of the conversations of voice that constitute this great work.
Brendel himself has ascribed to Armstrong “an understanding of the great piano works that combine freshness and subtlety, emotion and intellect.” How true. I heard turns of phrasing in this performance I have never heard in quite the same way. Notes were given life, distilled in their moments of time, yet ushered along in ways that enhanced always the larger messages of the piece. Armstrong’s youthfulness finds pure and wonderful expression in his playing as well. Nothing is overwrought, nothing dwelled upon needlessly, and all feel fresh. He highlights simple beauty while understanding every complexity.
This is artistry not to be missed. To hear Armstrong’s rendering of the Goldberg Variations is to witness a style of playing which is precise, astute and deeply felt. His expressions are sensitive, intelligent, spontaneous and beautifully rendered. For this performance, Armstrong’s reach to the audience was profound. As a member of that audience, I felt invited in, granted the intimacy of chamber performance, yet a performance that reached beyond the small theater walls to the heart of one of Western music’s greatest works.