To the cry "Not another Four Seasons" should be added the rejoinder "Yes, but this is Red Priest’s Four Seasons." This audacious ensemble – in my last review I called them the Cirque du Soleil of baroque performance groups – has recomposed the work in its own compositional image the better, they say, to shock us into recognising in the music the sheer novelty and drama that familiarity has long since bred out of it. The solo line therefore goes, usually, to Piers Adams’ recorder in various pitches, including a modern alto recorder. Because Red Priest is a quartet they’ve abandoned the solo/tutti contrast and have gone instead for a chamber ensemble but have varied the line to promote sufficient contrast. The result is variously engaging, vexing and exciting.
Fabio Biondi and Alice Harnoncourt have in their violinistic way staked out the ground for radical reinterpretation of the Four Seasons in a supposedly historically informed way. Still, as we all know – or as we all should know – today’s historically informed performance is tomorrow’s fish and chip packet. When the first recording of the Four Seasons was made in Rome in 1942 by an orchestra under Bernardino Molinari doubtless they all thought it was an approximation of Vivaldian style and performance practice. So I have no axe to grind on the question of Red Priest’s very individual reinvention. Their performance is less a Monet than a Jackson Pollock. Their birds in the Spring are pugnacious, the hoarse dog as explicit as a Turner sun, the shouted "hoy" in the Pastoral Dance a rusticity that lacks only peasant togs to complete the aural-visual axis on which this performance is predicated.
So, Red Priest being the mavericks they are, the barking dog reappears – I assume on the Franckian cyclical principle – in Summer and there the storm breaks with Miltonic flourish. In Autumn there are hints that the demon drink has got to the peasants even before the music has begun. The foursome characterise everything with a vigour bordering on mania; the hunt with its smacking great pizzicati is one instance and – hey – what a neat touch, a fade out ending at the end of the Allegro. Groovy.
The frost bit so hard in Winter that I doubted there was an Imperial grain of rosin on their baroque bows but then come the Largo and what do we have? Why, a Calypso-reggae guitar backbeat and a curvaceous solo violin line as sinuous and enticing as a bare foot bikini girl on a tropical beach. Sharp ears will note that the geographical influences extend from Club Tropicana and Barbados in a politically inclusive way to include touches of Roby Lakatos to whom Julia Bishop has undoubtedly been listening. If she hasn’t been listening to him I’ll send her a cheque for £50 and my compliments. And so to the very visualised icefalls of the concluding Allegro and a recording at once, I have to say, simultaneously sui generis and bananas.
It seems anti-climactic to note that the Corelli Christmas Concerto is almost a matter of rectitude by comparison. The first Adagio is flowing and sensitive and has a swinging Allegro section attached, the penultimate Allegro is brisk and brilliant and the Pastorale, well, it certainly has its share of Red Priest grotesquerie. Parental guidance stickers should have been supplied.
Obviously I can’t make much of a conventional recommendation given the unconventional nature of the performances but as ever with Red Priest one is, rather like going down to the woods, in for a big surprise.