Red Priest Break the Rules to Stunning and Spell-Binding Effect

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Vivaldi, Corelli et al: Red Priest, Kings Place, London, 12.12.2015. (CS)

Entitled Vertigo – Baroque on the Edge, this was Red Priest’s contribution to the London Chamber Music Series.

Vivaldi: Concerto Grosso in A minor

Anon/Jacob Van Eyck: Two early Christmas Carols: There is no Rose; Unto Us a Son is Born

Dario Castello: Sonata Secunda for violin

Handel: Largo and Passacaglia in G minor

Biber: Sonata No.3 (arr. for recorder)

Handel (arr. East): Zadok the Priest

Royer: Vertigo

Leclair: Tambourin

Durante: Concerto in G minor

J.S. Bach: Prelude and Gigue in C for solo cello BWV1009

Handel (arr. Summerhayes): Lascia Ch’Io Czardas

Corelli: La Folia 

An anonymous reviewer, writing in the Mercure de France in May 1734, complained that Rameau’s opera Hippolyte et Aricie was ‘du barocque’: by which he meant that it lacked coherence, was overly dissonant, incessantly changed key and meter, and employed an overabundance of compositional devices.  Derived from the Portuguese barroco, meaning misshapen pearl, ‘baroque’ now denotes an artistic aesthetic with favours exaggeration, elaborate ornamentation, exuberance and tense drama.  During this performance of familiar and obscure works from the Baroque era, Red Priest characteristically took this aesthetic, threw out dry notions of ‘authenticity’ and threw back in Rameau’s unpredictability and theatricality.  The result was tense, exciting and highly enjoyable.

Named after Antonio Vivaldi, ‘The Red Priest of Venice’, the quartet – recorder player Piers Adams, violinist Adam Summerhayes (replacing the indisposed Julia Bishop), cellist Angela East and harpsichordist David Wright – immediately set about not just challenging but completely shattering audience expectations with a highly charged performance of Vivaldi’s A Minor Concerto Grosso, ‘reinventing’ the form as a sort of collective jazz improvisation.  Adopting a precipitous tempo for the outer movements, Red Priest instantly generated a super-charged energy which was sustained, indeed escalated, throughout the programme.  Summerhayes and Adams flashed through the passagework with alarming ease, the rapid runs cascading like exploding fireworks.  East’s dry but eloquent pizzicato at the start of the Larghetto was deliciously warmed by the entry of the recorder, its melody seductive and soothing.

Summerhayes put down his violin and joined Adams in a duet for horn-shaped recorder, playing two early carols above the cello’s drone.  Even here, there was invention, a mischievous glissando from East effecting a sliding shift from the calm ‘There is no Rose’ to the more buoyant ‘Unto us a Son is Born’.  The violinist returned to his fiddle in Dario Castello’s Sonata Secunda, revelling in the surprising harmonic and rhythmic detours of the early-seventeenth century composer’s ‘experiment’ in new styles of writing for the instrument.  There was gentility as well as theatrics, and the prodigal effusions of emotion were striking counter-balanced by beautifully shaped diminishing phrases.

It’s not often that a recorder player steals the show, but the rhetorical extravagances of Adams’ performance of Biber’s Sonata No.3 were hypnotic.  He simply demands attention:  his implausible virtuosity, breath-taking speeds, astonishing range of colour and articulation, and powerful focused tone are matched by a compelling stage manner.  He struts and sways like a dancer.  In Adams’ hands the recorder is no longer an instrument most fitting for intimate domestic settings, but a medium for extrovert stage-craft.  Moreover, Adams was player and presenter, introducing the works to the audience.  One senses that he performs as naturally as he breathes.  He turned to a bass recorder for Handel’s Largo and Passacaglia in G minor, in which the lovely blossoming tone of the melody was complemented by East’s gentle whispering strokes, the bow barely brushing the string.

The coherent ensemble and precision timing exhibited by the players was remarkable, too, and helped to create immense drama, nowhere more so than in a compelling performance of Handel’s Zadok the Priest (arranged by East).  Driven by the cello’s repeating foundation note, the quartet created such an exciting surge of sound that if one closed one’s eyes it would have been easy to imagine that a whole orchestra was contributing to the swelling mass.

After the interval, harpsichordist David Wright – who up until this point had been a self-effacing but astonishingly dexterous accompanist – stepped into the limelight to perform Vertigo from Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer’s Pièces de clavecin of 1746.  In the preface to this edition Royer wrote: ‘The pieces are open to great variety, passing from the tender to the lively, from the simple to the tumultuous, often successively within the same piece.’  Vertigo is ‘the tumultuous’: Wright’s initial pounding chords triggered capricious roulades, and the noise of the mechanism added further to the explosive volatility.

The demonstrative violin melody of Leclair’s Tambourin danced intricately, the rhythms delightfully accentuated, while the repeating harpsichord chords added a percussive power.  A more introspective mood was established in the central section, and the entrancing tone anticipated the lovely warmth of the tenor recorder’s graceful melody in the Largo Affetuoso of the subsequent work, Francesco Durante’s Concerto No.2 in G minor.  In this movement, Red Priest emphasised the progressiveness of Durante’s musical imagination – there are some surprising harmonic shifts – while the following Presto was a riot of imitative virtuosity.

After these small rarities, the final three works looked set to take us to more familiar territory – but Red Priest characteristically wrong-footed us.  Angela East made her baroque cello sing with freedom in the Sarabande and Gigue from J.S. Bach’s solo suite in C.  East’s tempi, phrasing and dynamics may be unorthodox but they were utterly convincing.  Her tone was full and rich.  The double-stopping of the Sarabande was drawn-out, the supporting chords replete with emotion, while the Gigue’s string-crossings were fleet but focused.

Baroque musicians were notorious borrowers and self-plagiarisers, none more so than Handel.  Red Priest had already sneaked the Queen of Sheba into Zadok; now, Summerhayes turned the composer’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ into a gypsy czardas – a not unfitting transformation, seeing as Handel himself repeatedly recycled the melody: it made its first appearance in the form of an Asian dance in Almira, then resurfaced in the oratorio Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno before finding its more familiar home in Rinaldo.  Summerhayes’ virtuosity synthesised the stylistic mishmash into a persuasive whole.  Lastingly, Corelli’s La Folia variations took the pirating principle one step further, and Elgar’s cello concerto made a brief, and very eloquent, appearance!

Modishly attired in crimson and black, everything about Red Priest is flamboyant.  But, the hyperbole and theatricality is paradoxically underpinned by subtlety: effortless virtuosity, fine precision and unpresumptuous sensitivity.  This performance was as refined as it was extravagant; the improvisatory showmanship overshadows but does not mask the undoubted considered reflection and musical intelligence which inform the quartet’s spontaneity and invention.  They break the rules, and do so with total conviction and commitment.  For the purist it might be sacrilegious; for the audience at King’s Place it was stunning and spell-binding.

Claire Seymour

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