American Record Guide
[Comparisons: I Barocchisti, Accademia Bizantina]
It isn't hard to talk about these three recordings of the Four Seasons because they are about as different from each other as they could be. They do have one thing in common: all are on period instruments.
I'll begin with Red Priest's Four Seasons, which is certainly, and I would say only, a collector's item. If one were looking for a definitive recording, this is absolutely the last one to pick up. Upon first reading the notes I was highly skeptical. The performers admit to having arranged these concertos to suit themselves, and they use such phrases as "fresh new sounds". They also seem a bit doubtful about their "line-up of recorder, violin, cello and harpsichord [which] may not seem ideal to tackle a work intended for violin soloist and full string orchestra"; if they themselves are doubtful, why shouldn't I be? And, a recent ad for a Red Priest concert in our area says, "For people who 'appreciate' classical music but have a little secret - it bores them - the answer is Red Priest". Since classical music doesn't bore me - and, I venture to say, doesn't bore anyone who might be reading this - the answer is obvious: Red Priest isn't for us.
But - reluctantly I say it - you gotta hear this. At the same time I will warn you that there really should be a warning label on the cover: "Four Seasons Parody". Yet one could take a passage from the notes at face value: "Ernest attempts to re-create what an original performance might have sounded like have often run the risk of turning the music from living art into a museum-piece, and it sometimes takes a radical new view to re-appreciate the soul of a work. This – rather than shock appeal – is the principle purpose of our recording."
In general, the recorder, played superbly by Piers Adams, takes the solo violin part. The other instruments fill in, sometimes with sound-effects to match the season - such as twittering birds and barking dogs. Most is taken at a break-neck speed that would sound ridiculous with a full orchestra, but it keeps these reduced forces from sounding thin and adds to the programmatic emphasis. One highly anachronistic moment - intentionally so - comes in the first movement of 'Autumn', which in the words of the notations is meant to represent "dancing, singing peasants - the drunkard - dozing drunkards". The music starts out sounding like bluegrass, and at one point some person, undoubtedly one of the drunks (duly represented by the harpsichord) bursts out in the opening bars of 'God Save the Queen'. It's pretty odd, but one has to take it in context. Likewise the middle movement of Winter, notated as "peaceful and content by the fire, rain outside", is made to sound like easy listening.
Considering what I've written, I don't know why I like this at all. It's a depraved taste. But I do think it a highly creative curiosity and a must-have, both for those who have to have every recording of everything, and for those who must have odd recordings of conventional works. I can't very well compare this to anything else, because it's sui generis; no-one else has quite done this with the much-abused Four Seasons.
I do not recommend the Corelli's Christmas Concerto that comes at the end of this release. I like my recordings of this piece with wistful, yearning violins, played as though standing in reverence at the manger of the Baby King of Heaven; this concerto will not bear the somewhat ireverent treatment that the Four Seasons will take quite sturdily.