Red Priest’s Johann, I’m Only Dancing; Pirates of the Baroque; Nightmare in Venice; Priest on the Run

As you can tell from the titles to these collections, the approach adopted by baroque ensemble Red Priest (Piers Adams, recorders; Julia Bishop, violin; Angela East, cello; Julian Rhodes, harpsichord) is not what you’d call “reverent.” It’s not slapstick, or anything like that — these are serious musicians. It’s more that they appreciate the music, but they see it as a real, everyday sort of thing, which I consider an admirable attitude.

One of the highlights of any recording by Red Priest is the accompanying notes. In these four releases, the notes provide a context and an explanation — a “theme,” if you will — that brings into focus the “why” of the collection. (They also display a highly developed sense of fun.)

In Johann, I’m Only Dancing, for example, we begin with a brief discussion of the two major approaches to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach — the purists, who insist that Bach’s music is so nearly perfect that any attempt at “personalization” is a disservice, and the tinkerers, who insist that Bach’s music is so nearly perfect that it can stand up to any modification without damage. Red Priest have opted for a middle ground, arranging the music to fit the instrumentation of the ensemble, with the aim of highlighting Bach’s facility for harmonies and to bring out the underlying liveliness of his music. Amazingly enough, they pull it off. Just to note a couple of favorites, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) is immediately recognizable as the concert-hall staple so beloved of organists, but in the hands of Red Priest it takes on a contemporary edge, partly because of the colors of the instruments themselves, and partly because of the ensemble’s characteristically fast tempos. I’m not convinced this works so well on the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major (BWV 1048) — the recorder in the first movement lends an almost cartoon quality to the music, although as it progresses it becomes less Looney Tunes and more Bach. On the whole, though, I think they’ve made their point.

We tend to forget that the concept of “intellectual property” is of fairly recent provenance. Composers of the Baroque Era weren’t constrained by such things as copyrights and trademarks, or even licensing agreements. And so Red Priest brings us Pirates of the Baroque, which portrays not only some of the original piracy of the baroque composers, but some of the ways in which twentieth century composers and musicians — including Red Priest — have interpreted the idea. Granted, Red Priest’s piracy involves their own rearrangements of baroque works, but we are also treated to Giovanni Paolo Simonetti’s Sonata in C minor, Op. 5, No. 2, actually composed by Winfried Michel, a twentieth-century German composer who not only composed the complete Simonetti opus, but invented Simonetti. The disc also includes a famous work by Albinoni, the Adagio, composed in the 1940s by Italian musicologist Remo Gizzoto.

This is a disc that will probably drive purists right up the wall, but I have to confess that, as someone who likes baroque music at a reasonable distance, it’s a pleasing and enjoyable collection, characterized by Red Priest’s lively (and not always completely reverent) performances.

Nightmare in Venice brings us a selection of music that focuses on the baroque fascination with the bizarre, especially the supernatural — witches, goblins, and the like. The forebear of the baroque style, in fact, was a genre called “Stylus Phantasticus,” here illustrated by Giovanni Paulo Cima’s Sonata à tre, which, although it has its moments, to twentieth century ears doesn’t sound all that bizarre. Dario Castello’s Sonata Decima, a later work in that style, is likewise not so weird these days, although given the period, I can see where it might have brought on a bit of a frisson in the audience. I think we’re faced with a translation problem: what sounded bizarre in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries strikes us as pretty normal. Considering the times we live in, maybe that’s not so strange.

We’re given a look at the last years of Antonio Vivaldi’s life in Priest on the Run, an overview of the music he might have heard in his travels after fleeing Venice. (The flight itself may be for any number of reasons, but alas! We have only conjecture.) So we journey to Spain, England, Germany and Austria, where Vivaldi died in poverty in 1741. What’s remarkable about this group is the lack of definable “national” characteristics. Diego Ortiz’ Two Ricercadas, for example, does sound rather more renaissance than baroque, but not particularly Spanish. The Canción del Emperador by Luis de Narváez is rather more Spanish in color, but likewise more renaissance in feel. The renaissance is back in Henry Purcell’s Two in One Upon a Ground (a very lovely piece of music, by the way, performed sensitively and insightfully). Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s The Cuckoo Sonata is one of those delightful bits of “program” music from the baroque — and it is definitely baroque. It’s also somewhat later that the other works I’ve noted, which probably accounts for the distinctly baroque style. The capstone is Vivaldi’s own Concerto in D major (RV 92), “Priest on the Run.” Again, we’re firmly in the baroque, and definitely hearing Vivaldi: all the liveliness and high color I associate with his music is there in full measure. So, while Vivaldi might have heard these works in his travels, they weren’t all contemporary.

Red Priest has a refreshing approach to the music of the baroque (and earlier), in part due to the instrumentation of the ensemble, and in part due to their approach, which is best characterized as pragmatic — serious, to be sure, but their focus is on bringing the music to life which they do very well.

(All Red Priest Recordings, 2008)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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