I was more than a little sniffy about the last Red Priest recording that I reviewed – Angela East’s Bach Cello Suites on RP006 – see review
– so I am happy to state unambiguously at the outset that I thoroughly enjoyed the current offering. It deserves to be a runaway success.
The cover shot really tells you all that you need to know – this is a fun recording of the music of Johann Sebastian, much in the style of the group’s earlier recordings of their progenitor, the Red Priest Vivaldi, and one which approaches Bach’s music with the same irreverent reverence as the Swingle Singers. The irreverence is apparent from the performers’ postures on the cover and inside, the reverence by their use of period instruments (violin and cello) or copies. The famous portrait of Bach appears on the inside back cover of the booklet with a glass of champagne in his hand – and just a hint of retouching to make him smile a little?
I’m sure the composer of the ‘Coffee’ and ‘Peasant’ Cantatas would have approved. In fact, I’m wondering if an arrangement of the bagpipe dance finale from the latter, Wir gehn nun wo der Dudelsack,
might not have made an even better conclusion to Johann, I’m Only Dancing
than the finale of Brandenburg No.3. Please, Decca or Australian Eloquence, may we have the wonderful Emma Kirkby/Christopher Hogwood Oiseau-Lyre recording of the ‘Coffee’ and ‘Peasant’ Cantatas restored to the catalogue? Even the Passionato download which I recommended in my July, 2009, Download Roundup
no longer seems to be available.
I had some reservations about the best-known work here, the d minor Toccata and Fugue
, BWV565, perhaps because of its familiarity as an organ piece; I can even play it, or could once do so. Scholars have long had their doubts about the authenticity of this work, at least in its organ form, yet it is hard to believe that there could have been some contemporary genius who kept his light so much under a bushel that we do not know his name and have no other extant works of his. It’s more likely that the music is by JS, but not originally conceived for the organ – after all, we are used to performances of several of his concertos in their hypothetical original forms, different from those which have come down to us, but I don’t think that anyone has proposed quite the line-up offered here. Scholarly it ain’t, but it is fun.
Everything else works really well, though you might think that the scholarly should remain in their ivory towers, well away from this CD. The rest of us can enjoy. On second thoughts, I’m not sure that even the scholarly need stay away – perhaps they should set their players to skip BWV565 – since I don’t agree with the statement in the booklet that ‘authentic’ Bach need be austere. One web site on which I have seen this Red Priest CD advertised recommends those who enjoy it to follow it up with recordings by Il Giardino Armonico, whose Bach contrives to be both ‘authentic’ and highly enjoyable. Red Priest conclude the CD with Brandenburg Concerto No.3, a performance which could lead you straight to one of the livelier recent recordings of this work, though you won’t find on any of them the thwacks of the bow and popping noises which accompany this version. Red Priest polish off the Allegro
in 4:44 and the Presto
(shouldn’t that actually be Allegro
?) following a delightful 2-minute improvised cadenza, in 2:37, though with some repeats omitted in the finale.
Even Il Giardino Armonico cannot match these speeds; they take 5:43 and 4:43. Among other recent recordings which I have heard and enjoyed, Trevor Pinnock, no slouch on his highly recommendable recent Avie recording with the European Brandenburg Ensemble, takes 5:32 and 4:41 respectively (AV2119). John Eliot Gardiner’s excellent English Baroque Soloists, again no slouches, take 5:23 and 4:21 for these movements (SDG707) and Suzuki with the Japan Bach Collegium 5:42 and 4:19 (BIS-SACD 1721/2). Red Priest revel in almost coming off the rails in Brandenburg 3, or disappearing into the swirl which their group photograph becomes on the inner tray insert, but it should be an easy transition for anyone coming fresh to Bach in the new recording to transfer to one of these lively, if more circumspect alternatives.
Shorn of the considerations which I think partly spoiled Angela East’s recording of the Cello Suites, Red Priest here polish off the Prelude to Suite No.6 in 3:48, as opposed to 5:21 on the earlier CD. Of course, the purpose this time is quite different, but it is interesting that the tempo now is much closer to Steven Isserlis’ 4:33 on his complete Hyperion recording of the complete Cello Suites (CDA67541/2).
In analysing these performances too closely, however, I’m falling into a trap of my own making. When Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale
becomes too pedantic and boring, the Knight interrupts him to say that enough is enough, and I’m going to interrupt my own pedantry here:
‘Hoo!’ quod the knight, ‘good sire, na-moore of this!
That ye han seyd is right y-nough, ywis,
And mochel moore; for litel hevynesse
Is right ynough to moche folk, I gesse.’
Hevynesse (heaviness) is the last quality that you would associate with Johann, I’m Only Dancing
. Everything here is intended for fun and that’s exactly what the outcome is, though without seriously distorting any of the music. Those two cello recordings on RP005 and RP006 were quite different in intention; this new recording is much closer to the spirit of the earlier Red Priest albums, though with JSB in place of Vivaldi and the other Italian composers. The outcome is as much fun as Pirates of the Baroque
(RP004), which my colleagues and I welcomed – see review
– and it deserves to be as successful as I hope that album has been.
With good recording and enough notes to make the purpose of the recording clear, this album can be recommended to those seeking a fun interpretation of some of Bach’s music which nevertheless does not in any essential way misrepresent that music, as long as we don’t take that arrangement of BWV565 too seriously. Mr Organ Morgan in Under Milk Wood
, who rated ‘Johann Sebastian mighty Bach’ his favourite composer, might have objected – he doesn’t seem to have been the sort to see the fun in his hero’s music. The rest of us can only enjoy.