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Deceptive Naturalness

Red Priest's
'Nightmare in Venice' -

'... irrepressible, chic ...'

Red Priest - Nightmare in Venice. © 2002, 2008 Red Priest Recordings

Though Red Priest take glaring liberties with early music, the distinguishing character of these contrasted composers are never lost to sight. We see there are few similarities between early 18th century Venetian and Elizabethan English music.

Italian aristocrats, gondoliers, and workers mingled at all sorts of ribald masked carnivals and hedonistic theatrical entertainments. At the same time foundling girls under Vivaldi's skilful tutelage (in the Ospedale della Pieta -- a Venetian convent, orphanage, and music school) performed, from behind a metal grille, for the cream of Venice.

Vivaldi was master violin tutor at OdP from 1704, and chief composer from 1713 till he left Venice in 1740. Compare his duties as composer tutor with Purcell's unbroken royal patronage -- at a time when London was among the most musically cosmopolitan European cities.

In 1679 Purcell (1659-1695) succeeded John Blow (1649-1708) as organist at Westminster Abbey. He was appointed one of three organists at the Chapel Royal in the summer of 1682 while in 1685 the new King, James II, made Purcell the court harpsichordist and Blow the court composer.

The Italianate style is dispelled in an instant between the final Allegro of Vivaldi's Concerto in A minor, RV522 and the Prelude of the typical courtly Suite from Purcell's The Fairy Queen. Yet in the former, cellist Angela East playfully injects a brief nod in the direction of Austrian musical father figure, 'Papa' Haydn (1732-1809).

Here's how Red Priest stack up: Piers Adams (born 1963), a British recorder player, originally trained as an astrophysicist, but turned professionally to the recorder aged twenty one. Sometimes dubbed a 'modern day pied piper' his performing career has taken him all over the world.

Adams has received numerous awards and as a concert soloist performed with the BBC Symphony and Philharmonia Orchestras, the Academy of Ancient Music, Guildhall Strings, English Sinfonia, City of London Sinfonia, London Musici and the Singapore Symphony.

Julia Bishop, one of today's leading Baroque violin specialists, was a member of English Concert for six years. She has appeared as an orchestral leader and concerto soloist with the Gabrieli Consort, Brandenburg Consort, Florilegium and the Hanover Band. Julia has taught baroque violin techniques at the Royal Academy of Music.

Cellist Angela East studied with Derek Simpson and André Navarra at the Royal Academy of Music. In 1990 she formed a flexible gut string group, 'The Revolutionary Drawing Room', playing late eighteenth and early nineteenth century repertoire, and in 1997 she joined RP.

Angela presents regular recitals; with one of her programmes titled A Tale of Five Cellos in which she plays the viola da gamba, the bass violin, the baroque cello, the five-stringed cello and a cello of 1828. She has published her own editions of the Donizetti String Quartets.

Howard Beach (born 1966), a British harpsichord player, has performed and recorded on both harpsichord and piano as a continuo player and concerto soloist. Groups he has been featured with include Les Arts Florissants, the Apollo Chamber Orchestra and the London Mozart Players.

The deceptive naturalness with which these players splice musical fragments from later times into these baroque works is both ingenious and extraordinarily effective.

Thus here the opening bars of the 'Third Demon Air' (track 23) from Jean-Marie Leclair's one full-length opera, the tragedy Scylla and Glaucus (1746) and Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre (1872) are identical. The latter piece is based on French superstition provided for Saint-Saëns by symbolist poet Henri Cazalis (1840-1909).

The libretto for Scylla et Glaucus is by d'Albaret and modeled on a story from Metamorphoses by Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid; 43 BC-18 AD).

Later, part-way into RP's Fantasia on Corelli's La Folia (track 25), cellist East introduces the opening to Elgar's Cello Concerto (1919), as the unlikeliest of bridge passages.

Listen -- Fantasia on Corelli's La Folia
(track 25, 3:32-4:34) © 2002, 2008 Red Priest Recordings

The full disc begins with Vivaldi's Flute Concerto in G minor, Op 10, No 2, RV 439, La notte, RP-style. This economical work in six fleeting movements (only the final Allegro a smidgin over two minutes) shows all the hallmarks of RP's inimitable blueprint for such dazzling results. Track 4 (Phantoms III: Presto) will give you a forty five second example. Compare this with Track 5 with its misty though beautifully realized echoes of The Four Seasons.

Starting with track 7 we're pitchforked peremptorily into the Robert Johnson / Nicholas LeStrange English Fantasy Suite. Elizabethan dances were highly sophisticated and stately with intricate steps and nuances and The Satyrs' Masque (track 7) reveals capricious shifts of mood within the prevailing formula.

Milanese organist-composer, Gian Paolo Cima wrote his Sonata a Tre for violin, cornett and continuo in 1610. Follow this item if you wish via the Werner Icking Music Archive, a web archive of public domain sheet music currently held by 62-year-old Danish composer Christian Mondrup.

After Vivaldi's Four Seasons, the Concerto in A minor for 2 Violins and Orchestra Op 3 (L'estro armonico No 8), RV 522, is among his best known works. Here it gets surprisingly straight treatment though tempi of the outer movements are on the rapid side and Adams indulges in some quirky phrasing in the opening Allegro.

Listen -- Vivaldi: Allegro (RV 522)
(track 12, 2:02-2:58) © 2002, 2008 Red Priest Recordings

If you get a chance, listen to the incomparable DGG recording with David and Igor Oistrach and the RPO (conducted by David Oistrach).

Tracks 15-19; A Midsummer Night's Dream Suite, a pastiche from Purcell's The Fairy Queen (some sixty items total) can hardly convey the boundless melodic invention so steeped in Shakespearean magic. Its original songs, dances and choruses were first performed in May 1692 at the Queen's Theatre, Dorset Garden, London.

Dario Castello's 'Sonata Decima, Book 2' appeared at some time in the period 1621-1658 and was written for violino primo, violino secondo, dulcian (or fagotto; a bass wind instrument) and basso continuo; not unlike RP's recorder, violin, cello and harpsichord. The item is presented with pleasing fidelity to scoring of the original.

French-based group 'Les Witches' (Alpha Records) has similar instrumentation -- viz; Claire Michon, flutes, Freddy Eichelberger, harpsichord, organ and cittern, Odile Edouard, violin, Pascale Boquet, lute and guitar and Sylvie Moquet, viola da gamba. The trouble is, they focus predominantly on early composition from north of the Alps -- beside which they're not nearly as much fun as the UK's irrepressible, chic Red Priest.

Red Priest's appeal has been likened to that accorded the Rolling Stones, Jackson Pollock, the Marx Brothers, Spike Jones and Cirque du Soleil. And why not?

Copyright © 22 June 2009 Howard Smith,
Masterton, New Zealand











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