The English ensemble Red Priest, the backup group for eclectic recorder virtuoso Piers Adams, is known for making flashy adaptations of concerti by Vivaldi (whence their name) and other Italian Baroque composers for their chamber ensemble of recorder, violin, cello, and harpsichord. Much of their last recording, of Vivaldi's most famous set of concerti, Le Stagioni, hovers at the edge of tastelessness in its extravagant rewriting of Vivaldi's score. The group's dramatic impulsiveness may be justified by the sonnets that describe the narrative of each concerto, and if any style of music invites embellishment and adaptation, it is the Baroque.
Vivaldi, Four Seasons, Red Priest (2003)
Sure, I could probably live with the atonal bird calls, the weaving drunkard bends and slides, the added folk chromatic inflections, but are the bagpipe drone starting-up sound and the the pirate shout of "Hai!" in the third movement of La Primavera really necessary? Is there any reason to insert a quote of My Country, 'Tis of Thee before the final ritornello of the first movement of L'Autunno? The dripping rain of the middle movement of L'Inverno turned into a calypso? For a lesson in how to bring out every dramatic possibility of The Four Seasons without resorting to bathos and buffoonery, listen to Concerto Italiano's recording instead.
Red Priest returned to Washington on Saturday night for a sold-out concert at Dumbarton Church in Georgetown, featuring the program from their forthcoming recording, Pirates of the Baroque. One might wonder why on earth Ionarts would feel compelled to attend, but it is my business to know about Baroque performance groups, going to concerts so you don't have to (you can thank me later). If there is anything that Red Priest's approach to Baroque music tells us -- yes, they did perform in red and black pirates' costumes -- it is that one is not to take them seriously. What they do, by their own admission, is not about resurrecting great art (the program notes more or less suggest that the reason to listen to this music is because "the majority of composers" lived "boozy, philandering, extravagantly bohemian lives, intent on maximising their profits through, if necessary, dubious means") and it is certainly not about historically informed performance (Piers Adams' "musicological" justification for the Pirates of the Caribbean adaptation of Vivaldi's Tempesta di Mare concerto was that "the composer is dead").
The idea behind the program is flimsy, at best, combining the idea of musical piracy (composers stealing music from others) and music about pirates and the sea. The music consisted of Red Priest's typically glitzed up arrangements of some familiar Baroque chestnuts, some NPR folk music pablum, and a few unusual pieces of genuine interest. The gavotte with variations by Robert Mackintosh (1745-1807) is a charming work, in spite of the performance's out-of-tune multiple stops. The English Nightingale by Jacob Van Eyck (1590-1657) featured the stunning virtuosity of Adams, walking from the back of the audience with his sopranino recorder. Adams can play, to be sure, and he seems to have taken his stage gyrations from Ian Anderson. With Giuseppe Tartini's Senti Lo Mare and a tambourin by Jean-Marie Leclair, Red Priest almost seemed to take itself seriously, at which point uncomfortable questions would have to be raised, about what other reasons might make one want to listen to Baroque music. Other than the debased degeneracy of its composers, of course.
Joan Reinthaler, Red Priest (Washington Post, February 25)
The next concert on the Dumbarton Concerts series will feature the Amelia Piano Trio (March 15, 8 pm).