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Music Web

March 2003

Nightmare in Venice

Red Priest, the Cirque du Soleil of baroque performance ensembles, is back. Their first Dorian CD, Priest on the Run, gave us thunder bestrewn Vivaldi, Handel, Purcell, Telemann and others – and now they reprise their namesake Vivaldi, as well as Purcell, but add an English Fantasy suite (principally Robert Johnson but also one piece by the little known Nicholas LeStrange) adding a dash of Castello and Cima, and a soupçon of Leclair. Their finale is an outrageous Fantasy on Corelli’s La Folia in the version for recorder and continuo and one guaranteed to shake the very bones of those generations of departed violinists who essayed it in the original version in rather more – shall we say – genteel fashion.

Since that last CD Howard Beach has replaced Julian Rhodes who died, aged only thirty-seven, in 2001. Otherwise Piers Adams plays the recorders, Julia Bishop the violin (and some banshee wailing of which more below) and Angela East is the cellist. The rationale for this disc is the fantastic. The Nightmare Concerto of Vivaldi was originally written for flute or recorder and string orchestra and has been arranged by the group, as have other items here. Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in A minor (from L’Estro Armonico) acts as the centrepiece of the recital, once more in a small ensemble reduction – though it hardly fits the bill in terms of the ghoulish schema Red Priest enact elsewhere. But it does act as a healing refuge at least from Cima’s Sonata a Tre, written in the then current Stylus Phantasticus, and the other devilish goings-on in this characteristically dramatic production.

We are immediately plunged into the grotesquery of Vivaldi’s La Notte in which virtuosity, finesse and crazed sonorities evoke the nocturnal phantasmagoria of a truly fervid imagination. The jagging, jutting and sawing are writ huge in this performance and my main concern centres on the sonorities in the Chase, the final movement, in which things seem to get rather overheated. The so-called English Fantasy Suite opens with Johnson’s suitably devilish Satyr’s Masque but also features an aspect of Red Priest’s recorded performances to which I’m less sympathetic – the fade out ending (and it’s not the only example). In LeStrange’s The Furies Piers Adams unleashes a veritable torrent of dramatically vibrated flute playing; it’s reminiscent in Red Priest’s arrangement of South American pipe music and in The Witches’ Dance we have a surfeit of Frank Zappa gnawing and gnarling string playing – which is contrasted with an elegant folk-like simplicity (topped by the hag-like wails of Julia Bishop).

The inherent theatricality, the juxtaposed sonorities and stylistic clashes are all Red Priest’s now accustomed province but some sensitive baroque ears will need a health warning before this disc is removed from the shrink wrap.

However Cimas’s Sonata a Tre opens in sensitive fashion – desolate and full of feeling – the yelp at 2.30 is another side of the work’s nature and maybe Red Priest’s as well. The Concerto Grosso, a short three-movement work, begins with tasteful ebullience - these players have plenty of sensitivity when required and quite plainly considerable reserves of technical prowess as well – before some shimmering harpsichord playing launches Piers Adams’ recorder. Howard Beach seems to thrum the harpsichord in the concluding Allegro – a kind of running water effect and delicious – over which first the skittering violin and then the expressive cello make their entries. They certainly don’t stint the horror in the Dance of the Followers of Night from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen – string bulges galore, recorder billowing. In Castello’s Sonata Decima they seize on the potential for powerful contrast – lissom elegance and dramatic roistering sonorities – but the effect, to me anyway, is really rather pulverising. Red Priest have through long experience of baroque performance practice internalised such features as dramatic dynamic contrasts and giddying tempi and it is well within their capacity to detonate a work in this way. Whether it’s to the advantage of the work is a moot point.

Still there’s little denying the vivacious wit (albeit with thunderous cello accents) of Leclair’s Demon Air No. 2 or the shuddering aerobatics of the Simphonie. Now about the Fantasy: the notes are cagey but this is what I hear, some of it at least. It opens by presenting the spine of the melody, then continues with crypto exchanging of twos (in jazz terms), overblown embouchure work on the recorder, a pause for the solemn appearance of the Elgar Cello Concerto (it’s true folks), a slide so garish I suggest you listen with mufflers in a darkened room, some middle eastern cornucopia, a visit to sunset in Khartoum (I couldn’t make it up – special bow for recorder and harpsichord), a Greek wedding dance, slapped bass à la Pops Foster (Angela East the cellistic culprit) and – bear with me, it’s nearly over – a guest appearance by the ghost of Artie Shaw and his Gramercy Five (welcome back Johnny Guarnieri). Oh yes and flutter tonguing, Bach and some rapacious heavy rock. Well, it’s not Arthur Grumiaux that’s for sure. But that is Red Priest – entertaining, naughty, I’m not entirely sure I could live with it on disc but I’ll be sure to be at their next concert. I’ll be the guy in the earmuffs.

Jonathan Woolf

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