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Classics Today

April 2003


Dorian- 90305(CD)

   Yes, there's really a musical point to the title of this CD: most of the works presented are about or contain references to the weirder and wilder side of night, when creatures such as "phantoms", "witches", and "demons" arise to work their spells and haunt the living, and when nightmares frighten innocent, sleeping souls. And, at least as far as Baroque music goes, there's some scary stuff here, lurking among the pages of scores that you may not have heard before, and certainly haven't heard performed with the diabolical, fanciful zeal we get from the English early-music ensemble Red Priest. And besides the unusual music, the attraction here is the playing of these four virtuosos--Piers Adams (recorders), Julia Bishop (violin), Angela East (cello), and Howard Beach (harpsichord)--who never let a work originally for string orchestra or other larger instrumental configuration stop them from creating their own more-than-serviceable arrangement, nor do they regard the letter of the score to be more than a starting point for setting imaginations loose.

    Vivaldi's incredible Concerto in G minor RV 439 ("Nightmare") opens the program with ominous cello utterances that soon evolve into a familiar Vivaldian Largo set-up to a wild Presto ("Phantoms") that takes us on a frightful, agitated journey that's perfectly described by swirling recorder runs, sharply plucked harpsichord fills, and harshly bowed violin and cello accents, ending with a "sleepy" Largo followed by a frantic "chase".

    Red Priest also offers a compilation of English works that fit this uniquely theatrical genre (known in Italy as "fantastic style"), gathered under the title English Fantasy Suite. It includes three pieces by Robert Johnson and one by the aptly named Nicholas LeStrange. Notable are LeStrange's decidedly "strange" The Furies (made delightfully creepy by Adams' improvisational recorder licks) and Johnson's The Witches' Dance, complete with appropriately strident outbursts from the "witches"--done with voice and violin bow.

   Red Priest prefers gritty sound and eyebrow-raising demonstrative style to warm-toned, well-mannered interpretations. These players believe in bringing 21st-century sensibility to these old pieces, which in their hands don't seem nearly as ancient as we've come to accept. Ornaments are plentiful, extravagant expressions are common, and no one seems afraid to add a momentarily-felt improvisational enhancement. There are many more moments of surprise and "demonic" influence in this program--but you'll have to experience them for yourself, because to describe them all would spoil the fun. Dorian's sound, made in the ideal acoustic of Quebec's famed Françoys-Bernier concert hall at the Domaine Forget, places these performances in an attractive setting that allows us unobscured focus on the music and the individual instrumental contributions.

Performance 9/10

Sound 9/10

David Vernier

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