While his skills as a composer have won acclaim in realms as diverse as trip-hop and modern classical, Craig Armstrong is something of an unknown quantity as a live performer, at least on this side of the Atlantic. At this one-off Gotham show, the Scottish pianist and composer of the score to “Ray” proved to be a quietly compelling if somewhat detached presence on the concert stage.
Armstrong’s instrumental compositions exuded a palpable sense of place, from the Prague-like gray tones of the bleakly elegant “Heatmiser” to the high-plains tenor of “Hymn,” a crisp, elegiac piece almost Shaker-like in its simplicity.
For a good portion of the set, he was accompanied by Antye Greie-Fuchs, who pulled double duty by proffering bracing electronic loops and breathy, Nico-like vocals. She put the former to best use on a subtly shaded “Wintersong” (originally a collaboration between Armstrong and Massive Attack), while the latter element came into play nicely on “1st Waltz,” which suggested a gene splice between Debussy and Kraftwerk.
Armstrong faltered when he let his flowerier instincts get the best of him, a tendency that made stretches of the perf sound like an extended infomercial for one of those budget “romantic classical” compilations peddled on latenight television.
Those pieces — the most syrupy was an excerpt from “Love Actually” — were culled from Armstrong’s work on soundtracks, a field that’s been better for him financially than artistically. Oddly, film was the inspiration for one of the set’s highlights — an as-yet-untitled piece, composed at this year’s Sundance Festival, that ambled along with an “Umbrellas of Cherbourg”-like lilt.
The body of the perf — drawn primarily from Armstrong’s “Piano Works” disc — was, by and large, dry, but the duo flashed a bit of cheek by encoring with a denuded take on “Frozen,” a tune Armstrong co-wrote for Madonna. That quick burst of warmth went a long way toward melting the ice that had built up over the previous hour.