Adelaide Town Hall
Review / Graham Strahle.
THE reactions of two audience members said it all. One remarked, in between hollering and hooting, “This is the best concert I’ve heard all year – it’s certainly the most unusual.” Another just sat stony-faced, slowly shaking his head during the performances. So it is that Red Priest, the world’s most distinctive early music group, seems to bewilder and divide.
Not that listening is what their concerts are about either: as one discovered from the moment the four UK players appeared on stage dressed in garish black and red, theirs is an extravagantly visual concert.
In every piece there is action on stage of one kind or another – even, in the case of Purcell’s Two in One upon a Ground, parading among the audience in the stalls.
At one moment the most sober-looking of the four, harpsichordist Howard Beach, grabs a violin and honks out the sounds of a barking dog to Spring in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; he gets on his knees, then flat on his back.
In the last piece, an arrangement of Corelli’s La Folia, cellist Angela East bows her way through the opening of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, then slings her instrument over her shoulder and plucks it boogie-woogie fashion.
The real interest of Red Priest however, is something else: the recorder playing of Piers Adams. He is quite the most staggering virtuoso, like no other I’ve ever heard before, certainly on this instrument. He is a total showman – but has every right to be, given how astonishingly fast he can play.
In Jacob van Eyck’s Variations on What Shall We Do This Evening?, his speed surpassed the amazing and entered the realms of the incredible. Taken like this, of course, such music sounds unnatural: nobody would claim it is how 17th-century music is “supposed” to sound. But given a choice with the way this music is usually performed, with dull academic nicety, I’d prefer to hear Adams.
Are the stage antics of Red Priest an unwelcome latter-day intrusion? Not really. Burlesque, which is the artform they practise, is a centuries-old tradition and has always combined the visual and aural.
Adams and his friends are masters at it. Their concerts are clever take-offs, zany and irreverent, yet strangely closer to the spirit of the music than many other performers would dare consider. Purists will never like them.
The mistake, though, would be to dismiss Red Priest for what they are most brilliant at, which is communicating with the audience. I would only say that their costumes are awful and that their introductory talks in between items need smartening.
But that’s about it. Everything else they do is beyond criticism.