Red Priest – Truly Madly Baroque

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16 March 2019, MTG Napier
Reviewed by Louis Pierard

The concert by Red Priest, the first in Chamber Music NZ’s  subscription series, promised much and delivered more, with at least one entirely unexpected  but equally entertaining event  thrown in.
Decades of repeated listening to baroque standards can build up immunity to its initial charms (Pachelbel’s dreary Canon comes to mind). Attempts to recapture the moment of the first performance with scrupulous attention to original style may yield an academic frisson, but as entertainment value such scholarly earnestness often falls short because it ignores the experience of the listener – like sucking air out a sponge. Similarly, efforts to contemporise music with a beat (a La Walter de Los Rios’ Mozart confections) is to eat the cherries instead of the cake.
Red Priest, four British baroque players who take their name from Vivaldi’s soubriquet,  combine virtuosity with invention and irreverent wit in the spirit of the original that sees no separation between the classical and the popular.  The exceptional musicians – Piers Adams, recorders; Adam Summerhayes, violin;  Angela East, cello and David Wright  harpsichord  –  are dedicated to recreating the sense of adventure baroque audiences must have felt when hearing music that was innovative and largely improvised, and their  theatrics made it all the more pleasurable.
Adams’ recorder playing was dazzling.  From the exquisite sounds of Jacob van Eyk’s English Nightingale to the frenetic, finger-blurring speed in Handel’s Passacaglia in G minor, the mastery of the unapologetic showman juggling a variety of instruments – slung in a holster from the harpsichord – was an entertainment in itself.
Summerhayes, who also played the guitar in Gaspar Sanz’s peripatetic  “Canarios”  and the melodion  in Joseph Nicholas Pancare Royer’s “L’amiable” that evoked  Parisian café life,  shone in his delightful arrangement of Tartini’s “The Devil’s Trill” sonata,  a technical nightmare he described as  “delirium nocturnum”, and in the mesmerising hurdy-gurdy harmonics of “Labyrinth”, also by Tartini.
East  played with a discreet authority, but with no less passion, in Bach’s  Adagio from the Viola da Gamba Sonata in G minor  (popularised by  the movie “Truly, Madly, Deeply”),  and her performance of Henry Eccles’ Adagio and Presto  in G minor was a treat.
Likewise, Wright’s playing in the Bach Brandenburg  No 5, the progenitor of the piano concerto,  showed consummate balance and  precision in  a work that proved  extraordinarily fulfilling though performed on just four instruments. Other items were Albinoni’s fetching D minor concerto and, yes, Pachelbel’s Canon, which Red Priest’s best efforts could do little to reinvigorate.
What would have been a first for everyone, performers included, was the expulsion of two audience members who arrived late and evidently in their cups and who, to the growing exasperation of those around them, chatted volubly during the performance.  One of their neighbours rose to his feet in a denunciation that attracted localised applause.  The couple stumbled out, drinks in hand, with an aside that they didn’t like the concert much, anyway.  Maybe they had mistaken “Red Priest”  for a seminar on liberation theology.
It was made all the more amusing by Cicero’s  quote on the opened harpsichord lid: “Otium cum dignitate” –  “Leisure with dignity”.

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