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Piers Adams and his ensemble Red Priest have been at the cutting edge of the recorder and early music scene for many years. This month they are launching their own recording company with a swashbuckling new CD, “Pirates of the Baroque”, and an extensive UK concert tour. Here, in an in-depth interview conducted for Germany’s recorder magazine, Windkanal, Piers talks to Nik Tarasov about his musical life and his journey to the position of world-renowned virtuoso.
NT: Please give us a brief flashback to when the recorder started to play a role in your life.
PA: My first real memory of the recorder - aside from a few squeaks and grunts in primary school - comes from my classroom music lessons in my secondary school (near Reading, England) led by a wonderful, larger-than-life teacher called Roger Johnson - now sadly deceased - who was a huge fan of David Munrow, and possessed a chest of weird and wonderful renaissance wind instruments. Roger ran a thriving early music group in the school, and when at age 12 I wanted to take up a 'real' instrument he told me to look no further than the recorder, initially teaching me himself before passing me to a local specialist teacher.
As I was a somewhat obsessive youth - following my interests to the exclusion of all else, and boring my family to tears in the process - I rapidly became pretty good at the instrument. In my school holidays I would travel to London on my own, returning with armfuls of Frans Brüggen records and sheet music, with which I would further torture my un-musical siblings. Various summer schools followed, and a couple of years at the junior department of the Royal College of Music under Ross Winters - who was, at the time, the only Dutch-trained teacher in the UK.
I studied physics at university, but my spare time continued to be dominated by music, and I ran a successful baroque group there before going to the Guildhall School of Music for a postgraduate year under Phillip Pickett and Peter Holtslag. After that time my only lessons were in Italy with Kees Boeke, who was inspiring, insightful and thankfully, completely non-judgemental about the kind of directions I found myself drawn in.
Looking back, this whole period was one of profound excitement and discovery for me, with the sound of the recorder, and especially the almost Messianic figure of Brüggen, at its heart. It came as quite a shock one day - in early August 1984, at the Bruges Early Music Competition, to be precise - to realise that I was not alone in this voyage, and that I would have to be more than just a good player if I was to stand the faintest chance of a recorder career!
NT: What impressed you most in Bruges? And what musical conclusions did you draw from this?
PA: I guess the most surprising thing was the sheer number of players - there were something like 100 entrants to the 'Musica Antiqua' competition that year, mostly recorder players, and mostly of a high standard. I was still very inexperienced - I'd had little professional musical training at that stage, and had learnt most things just from listening to records and performing with my university ensemble. Although I'd developed quite a few aspects of a virtuoso technique, I was sadly lacking in certain important areas, such as good breathing technique and relaxed finger control, and it was an education to watch so many who had been well-drilled in these things. Fortunately I was to head to the Guildhall straight after that summer holiday, where I had a timely encounter with Phil Pickett's rigorous diaphragm and finger exercise system, which had real meaning for me after the Bruges experience.
Bruges was also the first place where I encountered 'real' recorders - historical copies of all kinds, which at that time tended to be voiced much louder, stronger and more openly than is the fashion nowadays. I remember hearing a couple of years later that a certain well-known Dutch teacher had decided that recorders should be quiet and pure in sound - and it seems that the entire recorder-making world quickly fell into line with this pronouncement! Even recorders I actually ordered at Bruges turned out to be quite different from the models I had tried out in the exhibition, by the time they finally arrived two or three years later - which was very disappointing, and the beginning of a lifelong quest for the perfect recorder sound.
Perhaps the most important realisation for me that week was that one must follow one's own, unique path. By 1984 the ' Brüggen effect' had clearly spread far and wide, but the actual number of players making a successful performing-based career was very small. It seemed to me that Brüggen had, in effect, done it all - discovered the sound, researched and recorded all of the important repertoire, taken the recorder into the 20th century with many significant commissions, in fact created an entire cultural movement - and that all anyone else could do was more of the same, or better, similar things in different combinations (which had resulted in superb ensembles such as Loeki Stardust and Quadro Hottetere). But what was also interesting to me was the fact that the world's only other recorder superstar, Michala Petri, had created her own glittering career and distinctive voice entirely outside of this movement - and I was amused to discover it was considered impolite to mention her name in recorder circles! I did so, of course, as often as possible...
So, at the same time as learning my craft over the following years, I was also consciously applying myself to the development of an original musical personality - 'image', even. This may sound contrived - and maybe it was in the early days (I returned to the Bruges competition three years later in a flashy white suit with a playing style to match, only to be told by chief juror Barthold Kuijken that I should take up the saxophone instead!) - but as they say, invention is born of necessity, and thus out of the intense desire to have a playing career in competitive times has come what I now consider to be my real, authentic musical personality.
One final thing I should mention about that very influential time is an event which happened to be taking place one night in the same city: an outdoor concert by a band of East European gypsy musicians. Although I had been, until that moment, fully involved in the competition and early music festival, this was a musical experience on a whole different level - unbelievable virtuosity, heart-on-sleeve expression, sheer joy and freedom. A seed was sown in my mind which has affected many of my musical choices over the years since.
NT: I remember having heard your Wigmore Hall debut in 1994. You were playing together with a grand piano, and you even borrowed pieces from the repertoire of the nineteenth century. Could you describe the development towards this musical enterprise.
PA: Actually that was not my first but my fourth recital in the Wigmore Hall! I did five there in the first decade or so of my career, and the programmes from those events provide quite a good record of my musical journey over the years. The first - the winner's recital for the 1985 Moeck Recorder Competition - was of standard baroque repertoire, and all I remember from it was my cellist's glasses falling off in his enthusiasm and landing on his bridge, just before the final, triumphant chords of the Handel D minor sonata. Three years later I returned with the harpsichord genius Nigel Tilley - who later was to change his name to Julian Rhodes, become a founder member of Red Priest, and die tragically aged just 36. This was my first public attempt to create some really individual repertoire and sounds, and we performed a mixture of obscure 17th century music, modern pieces and transcriptions - Mozart, Rimsky Korsakov, Debussy, and in homage to those amazing Gypsy musicians, Monti's famous Czardas.
It was shortly after this that I first came across the 19th century csakan repertoire, and especially the music of Ernst Kraehmer. I read in an interview with Michala Petri that she had found some of his music in the archives of the British Library - of which I immediately became a member. I subsequently spent many inspiring days in the fabulous reading room of that building, copying out this swirling, extravagantly romantic recorder music by hand from the original prints. There's nothing like this process to feel truly connected to music from the past, and although so much more is readily available to us nowadays at the click of a mouse I can't help feeling that something is lost when it's all so easy... I made editions of this music (and others from libraries around Europe), recorded two of the pieces for my CD 'The English Nightingale', and prepared a programme with keyboardist Howard Beach called 'Paganini of the Recorder', which was accepted for tour on the Dutch and British Early Music Networks in 92/93 - including a date at the Wigmore. The second half of this programme was devoted to Kraehmer, and I had a recorder pitched in Ab (the key of the csakan) specially made for it by the British maker Michael Dawson - the start of a productive working relationship with him. Howard played on an original 1830 square piano, which we hauled around the country in a rented van, together with a large harpsichord for the first half of the programme - but despite all of this, Early Music News denounced the concert as 'utterly unauthentic' (a quote I regularly used in my publicity thereafter!), for the reason that the harpsichord was from the wrong country for some of the music, and the fact that Howard had added a single, shocking 7th-note to a chord in a Schubert impromptu. Honestly, there's no pleasing some people...
The discovery of the csakan repertoire really opened the door for me to work on the concept of a 'grand, romantic recorder recital' - which felt, at last, like a really original idea, the natural conclusion to those thoughts and impressions I had carried with me since Bruges. Howard and I started to use a modern concert piano, and I had several new recorders designed by Michael Dawson, voiced as loudly as possible. We looked for repertoire in many places, and found a rich source especially in the Dolmetsch archives: the mostly British music commissioned by Carl Dolmetsch for each of the 45 Wigmore Hall concerts he gave between 1939 and 1989. Of these pieces, the York Bowen sonata stands out as exceptional, as a genuine, substantial (neo-)romantic recorder work. To these we added many new transcriptions for our 1994 recital: romantic showpieces, gypsy dances and modern jazz, and two commissions of our own: Chris Gander's 'Kama Deva' (a kind of Indian version of Ishii's 'Black Intention', which I later recorded in an expanded version as 'Dances with Gods'), and the concert's title piece, Roxanna Panufnik's 'Eight Deadly Sins'.
Three years after the concert you heard we returned to the Wigmore Hall with a programme called 'Recorder Bravura', to launch the CD of the same title. This was a similar mix of music: a grand Polonaise for csakan by Hunyadi, Bach's Italian Concerto, Poulenc's Flute Sonata, sundry virtuoso transcriptions and two new commissions. This turned out to be the last major project from this era - soon afterwards Red Priest was to materialize and effectively take over my performing life...
NT: So, enriched by these experiences, you returned to the music of the Baroque in your new ensemble , but this time with a different approach to the reproduction of the works and the accepted perception of authenticity. Could you give us an insight into this transformation?
PA: I guess throughout those 'romantic recorder' days I'd also harboured in the back of my mind the idea of forming an ensemble to combine authentic baroque playing with the flair of the gypsy musicians. In fact, the more I thought about and researched the idea, the more convinced I became that this kind of approach would be closer to the spirit of the baroque than much of what passes as 'authentic' today, in which performers seem more concerned not to be accused of playing an incorrect trill than about moving their audience to laughter and tears. My attempts to make this happen in the past had generally been less than successful, with my ideas frowned upon (or more often, sniggered at) by fellow musicians - but everything changed when I met my partner, baroque violinist Julia Bishop, who introduced me to the early recordings of the Italian baroque ensemble Il Giardino Armonico. I remember being stunned by their bold and dynamic approach - more rock than baroque at times - and also somewhat envious, as this was the sound I had been dreaming of creating myself for many years. (Julia's connection with this group, by the way, had been through her previous partner who was a regular member - and so we found ourselves in the slightly bizarre situation of spending our early dates together listening fervently, for hours on end, to her ex-boyfriend on CD). I was inspired by the fact not only that these kinds of sounds were possible to achieve, but also - with my commercial hat on - that Il Giardino had had a lot of success in doing so, and I realised that the resistance I had met previously was more to do with Northern European conservatism than any other factor. Likewise, Julia had spent many years touring with the leading British baroque orchestras, and had become very disillusioned with the increasingly restrictive approach to authentic performance - so it was a very natural step for us to combine forces and start our own group. Plus, we'd then actually get to see each other occasionally...
With the Giardino model in mind our debut concert in 1997 involved 8 or 9 players and featured Vivaldi concertos and two of Bach's Brandenburgs - but by the second concert we had already thinned down to the core membership of Julia and myself, cellist Angela East and harpsichordist Julian Rhodes. With this quartet of entirely free-spirited musicians we were soon able to create some fairly wacky interpretations of standard trio-sonata repertoire, leading to the recording of our first album, Priest on the Run, in 1998; it was also around this time that we made it an aim for the whole group to perform from memory - which has an amazing effect of freeing one's mind in performance, and allows for more interesting and dynamic staging. A couple of years later Julian, sadly, fell terminally ill, and was replaced in the group by Howard Beach, resulting in the line-up that has lasted to this day. Having signed with the American label Dorian Recordings we recorded our second CD, Nightmare in Venice, in 2001, and this set the tone for things to come, relying much more heavily now on our own arrangements - a process which continued as we worked up our version of the Four Seasons, into which we threw every idea that came to us! Our goal with this rather famous work was ambitious - not only did we want to produce a (recorder-led) chamber version which could stand up on its own next to the orchestral original, rather than as a kind of 'domestic' curiosity, but also we wanted it to be the most uncompromisingly programmatic interpretation on the market. The reviews for the Seasons CD were encouraging, and this became our most popular touring programme.
Looking back I think it was important for our ongoing development that we took a different path from Il Giardino Armonico, despite our common origins. For us that meant keeping to just four musicians and adding ideas from many other musical genres, from world music to glam-rock! The result, I would say, is perhaps 70% 'authentic' - that is, justifiable by reference to baroque texts (which in any case often surprise people in their descriptions of demonically-wild performers, extreme tempos and dynamics) - and 30% our own input. But even that latter proportion I would defend from a philosophical viewpoint: as I often say to people, the whole exercise of trying to play authentically (that is, in the style of a musician from the past rather than in your own style) is in itself artificial, and hence inauthentic!
NT : The main clout of your group may come from the surprise of a constant blend of various musical styles in context of works of the Baroque. Does this also influence your choice of different kind of recorders and relating playing techniques?
PA: Yes, it does. As I took that journey away from the baroque into romantic and modern realms - both in terms of techniques and instrumental developments - it was impossible not to want to bring some of the fruits of those years of work back into my baroque playing. Perhaps this was partly because I was not a musician who 'found' period playing after years playing modern instruments, but rather I effectively started my whole musical life with early music - so the journey into later styles was natural and chronological. From this perspective I find it hard to believe that composers of the past would not have embraced new instruments and developments had they been available at the time.
I think period musicians these days tend to worry too much about precise choice of instruments for a given piece. With a few exceptions, baroque musical lines can be played with equal effectiveness on any instrument that will fit the range - there's often no difference between melodic writing for flute, recorder, oboe, violin, even keyboard, and as we all know, it's considered perfectly acceptable practise (and common for us undernourished recorder players!) to swap between these very different kinds of instruments. Nowadays, too, we know that Bach can sound as effective on a modern piano - or even synthesizer - as on a harpsichord. Why, then, do recorder players place so much emphasis on using exactly correct historical models? It becomes more of an intellectual than a musical decision .
To be honest I never try to justify my choice of recorders by anything other than their effectiveness in a concert situation. This basically means that they need to be powerful (bearing in mind that concert halls and audiences nowadays are on average much larger than in baroque times), totally reliable, and with great flexibility to allow for a large expressive and dynamic range. Most historical copies (and originals) that I've tried simply don't have these qualities, and are either virtually inaudible in a large concert hall, or if pushed split, for instance, on every (alto) high D! Recorder-enthusiast audiences tend to forgive these shortcomings, but to the general public they don't paint a very impressive picture of the instrument (or worse still, of the player!)
I hear a lot of rubbish spoken in excuse of the above - about how the 'real' volume of recorder sound is nothing to do with the actual decibel level, or the amount of air put down the instrument, but some other esoteric factor, which exists in the player's mind. Sadly that factor rarely exists in the mind of the listener as he struggles to hear! It is a very basic fact that more air = a louder tone, and so recorders that can take that extra blowing without the tone cracking are preferable if you want to be heard. Of course, there are many, many other factors to producing a 'big' musical performance, and one should constantly add to one's palette of nuances, effects and techniques in order to be able to paint musical emotions with vivid reality. To me, those need not be limited to 'baroque' techniques - after all human emotions are timeless - and for the widest possible expressive range techniques from romantic, world, jazz or modern styles can be appropriate on occasion.
So, my regular touring recorder collection includes several instruments by Michael Dawson (effectively souped-up baroque models, but in a wide range of standard and 'in-between' keys), a Kung bass, a Breukink tenor, and in particular, the modern altos in F and G by Mollenhauer, which for me are the perfect combination of a true recorder sound but with significantly greater range and power. The other members of Red Priest play original baroque instruments, but this blend of old and new seems to work quite well, and maybe adds to our distinctive sound
NT: Your group performs internationally at regular concert events. How do you organise the structures of your enterprise and what are your future plans?
PA: The hub of Red Priest is the office of Upbeat Classical Management in the UK. Maureen Phillips, the owner of this small company, has been with Red Priest since its inception, and helped hugely in our development as an international ensemble through her link-ups with agents across the globe - notably in America, Japan and Germany, where our local agents have been doing an excellent job. My own work is effectively the day-to-day running of the group - liasing with Maureen, writing programme notes and advertising material, dealing with the group's finances, updating the website, organising the travel and so on; this sometimes feels like a full-time job in itself... Other members do certain other tasks - for instance, Howard is in charge of inputting (in Sibelius music notation software) all of our arrangements onto his computer.
The most exciting current development is the formation of our own record company, Red Priest Recordings, which is being launched internationally this month with our new recording, 'Pirates of the Baroque', alongside the colourfully re-packaged back-catalogue. The idea of doing this had been growing in our minds ever since the bankruptcy of Dorian Recordings in 2005 (out of which, with the assistance of a pair of sharp US lawyers, we managed to obtain the rights to all of our CDs) although before we arrived at this decision we spent a couple of frustrating years negotiating with major labels in search of the elusive 'big money deal'. We found that the help of a large record company comes at a very high price - for instance, one contract offered to us effectively said: "Give us your discs and we might or might not release them and pay you a microscopic royalty, once we've recouped every cost imaginable - and if we decide not to, you can eventually have them back on the condition that you pay us 20% of all sales forever." I'm not joking!
Although this might seem a negative reason for launching out on our own, in fact I feel it was the push we needed to do exactly the right thing for us. Our company is a five-way partnership between the members of the group and Maureen, who is now the label manager as well as our concert agent, and we have a close relationship with our distrubutor Nimbus, who organise CD pressing, merchandise, international distribution, web sales and downloads. As well as making and selling our own recordings we also control all aspects of publishing, and are currently working to make available scores of all of our arrangements - and a large library of csakan music too. In this way we have a kind of '360-degree model', with every aspect of life as a 21st century musician controlled under one roof - and displayed to the world through the shop-window of our newly-revamped website ( www.redpriest.com ).
As to future projects: we are currently completing work on our new all-Bach recording, which will be released early next year, following on from two new cello discs from Angela East, the re-release of my solo back-catalogue, and a DVD of the Four Seasons. Meanwhile, life on the road continues throughout 2009 with trips to the US, Germany, Sweden and Japan, and a large UK tour to celebrate the launch of 'Pirates'. Of course, there are many other projects - solo and group - in the planning stages, but superstition prevents me saying more until they are a little closer to becoming reality!