Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Handel in the Wind
Suite from the Messiah [39:03]
Rinaldo: Lascia ch’io pianga [2:58]
Trio Sonata in F, Op.2/4, HWV389 [11:32]
The Harmonious Blacksmith Variations [3:51]
Concerto Grosso Op.3/2: Largo [2:36]
Keyboard Suite in g minor: Passacaglia [2:58]
Zadok the Red Priest [6:01]
Encore (from Priest on the Run): Trio Sonata Op.2/1: Aria Amorosa [2:57]
Red Priest (Piers Adam (recorders), Julia Bishop (violin), Angela East (cello), David Wright (harpsichord))
rec. Birley Centre, Eastbourne College, UK, 2014. DDD

First, the punning title and then the trademark artwork … yes, Red Priest is back. I’ve reviewed a slew of the discs and invariably make the point that behind the arrangements, artwork and zany presentation sits real musical accomplishment. You can only truly successfully take liberties when you’ve mastered your instrument.

The focus is Handel for once, not Bach or Vivaldi or any of the feverish titans of the Baroque whom the group has plundered for its musical spoil. It was originally cellist Angela East’s idea to ‘Red Priest’ Messiah, a process the group originally resisted but gradually embraced. Indeed, from Piers Adams’ sleeve-notes, it appears that the group took their cellist’s idea and ran with it. Thus her original concept is heard in an altered form in the recording and emerges as more extreme. That said, if you were expecting klaxons and the sound of the kazoo, you will be disappointed. What you will hear is a Suite, with some jokey track titles – for instance The Jaws of Darkness, Siciliano Pedicuro – with trademark rhetoric and wit. Thus we encounter, along the way, stringent double dotting in the overture, Vivaldian bird imitations in Comfort Ye, the interpolation of Eternal Source of Light Divine, and hints of Jaws (the Great White variety). Due to the modest size of the group this all takes some doing. I liked the ‘mezzo’ quality of the recorder selected by Adams for He Was Despised and the powerful contrasts found in the later part of the suite, all of which I’m sure would work engagingly well in concert. If you’ve ever wondered how a walking bass would sound in Hallelujah, with which the suite ends, here is your chance to find out. Loping along it meets a Czardas – as you do – and this Monti-style frolic embraces the strains of Happy Birthday amongst other hi-jinks. Just don’t try following it all in your Novello edition.

The remainder of the disc is taken up largely with sweetmeats. There’s a warmly done Lascia ch’io pianga and an initially respectful but increasingly wacky Harmonious Blacksmith – this labouring man yells ‘yee-haw’ at one point. The recorder is to the fore for much of the Keyboard Passacaglia from the G minor Suite, though this is more of an extrapolation of the Halvorsen version rather than the keyboard original. The Queen of Sheba barges her way into Zadok the Red Priest which is full of Vivaldian flute decorations. Amidst the bustle don’t overlook the delightful, straight, recording of the Trio Sonata in F major, Op.2 No.4 which shows the rhythmic vitality and expressive sensitivity of the group, and also the beautiful playing of the Largo from the Concerto Grosso Op.3 No.2 Note, too, that the encore – the Aria Amorosa from the Op.2 No.1 Trio Sonata is not a new recording – it comes from RP001.

Having thus noted these things admirers of this life-enhancing quartet can confidently acquire Red Priest’s latest disc. I wonder what’s next: Priest at the (Baroque) Opera?

Jonathan Woolf

Another review ...

The Rude Boys (and Girls) of Punk [ba]Roque are at it again. This time Handel is in their sights, specifically The Messiah. No doubt some of the more puritanical musicologists will feel the need to listen from behind their comfortable sofas, like small boys watching Dr. Who, simultaneously fascinated and horrified. Most of us, however, can surely feel free to enjoy Red Priest’s imagination, virtuosity, wit and exuberance.

I have come across the adjective iconoclastic applied to what Red priest do, but this seems to me to involve a serious misunderstanding. Historically speaking, ‘iconoclasm’ was the actual destruction of religious images. In the Byzantine iconoclastic movements of the 8th and 9th centuries and the Puritanism of 17th century England, religious images, in paint, stone or glass were defaced and destroyed. These works of art (to look at these images within a different frame of reference) were gone, once and for all, the unique objects lost forever. When, on the other hand, a moustache was drawn on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa (as it was by Marcel Duchamp in his L.H.O.O.Q) the act was not one of iconcoclasm, since no unique work of art was destroyed, any more than it was when William Burroughs cut up existing books by other authors to generate works of his own (after all many other copies of the books he had used as sources continued to be available).

It is hard to see, indeed, how iconoclasm in its true sense could ever exist in the performing arts, short of the burning or shredding of all copies (manuscript or printed) of, say, The Goldberg Variations or Hamlet, since no re-interpretation of a score or a theatre text can actually destroy the work itself.

So, Red Priest are not iconoclasts but they are irreverent. What they fail to reverence (i.e. to treat with the degree of respect generally thought appropriate) is not Handel, but the currently established parameters of interpretation and performance practice deemed relevant to his work. Rather they appropriate to themselves the liberty to deploy a greater freedom of interpretation than is currently judged ‘permissible’. It would be an easy paradox to say that in truth they actually treat Handel with a different kind of reverence. But it is probably truer to say that what they do with his work indicates a profound respect for its intrinsic greatness, as a source of ideas and materials that inspire them and whose qualities they want to communicate in their own fashion. They are certainly not deaf to the richness of Handel’s music.

The booklet notes to Handel in the Wind (which are presumably the work of Piers Adams though he doesn’t seem to be explicitly identified as the author) provide an account of the genesis of this ‘Suite from the Messiah’: “For many years our cellist Angela East tried to persuade us that … our next project should be that best-loved choral masterpiece, Handel’s Messiah”. Despite initial reservations about the idea, “somehow [it] wouldn’t go away, and Angela continued to arrive at rehearsals armed with reams of music she had arranged and “we finally agreed to plough through them for a quiet life. And a strange thing happened. Handel’s sublime, instantly recognizable choral writing began to turn before our ears into thrilling chamber music … Angela could only observe in horror as some of her carefully thought out arrangements were twisted and re-worked in our mounting enthusiasm, tempi were wound up or down perilously, and new ideas were introduced – but in the end her dream was finally realized, albeit in altered form.” The result is startling (those who dislike it would probably choose the adjective ‘shocking’). The ‘Suite’ exudes the feeling of a shared, group project, to which each of the four members of Red Priest is fully committed; the results would, I am sure, of been less satisfying if all four had not had a role in its ‘invention’.

Highlights of the ‘Suite’ include ‘Ev’ry Valley’, full of virtuosic display and intuitive ensemble work of a very high order, and ‘Lost with Blindness’, which jumps off from ‘The people that walked in darkness’ and sounds, at times, like the result of gifted group improvisation. Piers Adams’s soprano recorder is to the fore (and is very well supported by the rest of Red Priest) in ‘The Recorder [sic] shall Sound’. ‘The Raging Nations’ (a variant on ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage’) is appropriately fast and furious and displays a quality of musicianship so marked that no one can be left in any doubt as to the technical credentials of all four members of Red Priest. Their wit and impudence, as well as their technical assurance are also evident in the very different ‘Siciliano Pedicuro’ (!) (i.e. ‘How Beautiful Are the Feet’. Perhaps not everything works quite so well. The closing ‘Hallelujah’ surely tried to digest just a bit too much, including, as it does, allusions to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ (Red Priest have, after all, been compared to Monty Python), Monti’s ‘Czardas’ and, at its close, ‘Happy Birthday’! Even so, it certainly made me smile, and in a world where too many performances of ‘classical’ music are staid to the point of being almost inert, it is a joy to listen to (and given the opportunity, to see) Red Priest at work. These are performers constitutionally incapable of being ‘chemically inactive’ (one of the meanings of ‘inert’) or boring. Everything they do is guaranteed to provoke a strong reaction – of approval or disapproval, enthusiasm or revulsion.

The rest of the music on this disc is, by comparison, played relatively ‘straight’ (though all of the performances are imbued with what the booklet notes describe as “the Red Priest principles of drama, rhetoric, humour and virtuosity”). Violinist Julia Bishop is the star of ‘Lascia ch’io panga’, playing the beautiful melody with expressive power and grace of line. Handel made at least three uses of this melody – as a dance in his 1705 opera Almira, in the aria ‘Lascia la spina’ in Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno (of 1707) and, finally, for Almirena’s ravishing aria in Rinaldo (1711). In a sense this arrangement for four instruments returns the melody to its earliest Handelian incarnation in dispensing with voice. There is no need for arrangement where the Trio Sonata in F major, op.2 No.4, is concerned, since (uniquely in Handel’s oeuvre) it was actually written for Red Priest’s instrumentation. It gets a vigorous reading, with some sharp changes of tempo and a lot of impressive instrumental interplay. A version of the ‘Harmonious Blacksmith Variations’ (i.e. the final movement of Handel’s Keyboard Suite no.5 in E major) provides an opportunity for bravura display by all concerned – with a very un-Handelian cry of encouragement as the tempo increases, before it closes in a quasi-Scottish dance. The Passacaglia (from the Keyboard Suite in G minor) includes some percussive striking of instruments and pizzicato string work, with the recorder of Piers Adams then riding delightfully at great speed (but with complete technical control) over the harpsichord and strings. The version of the Largo from Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op.3 No.2 is, naturally a somewhat calmer affair and if one listens to CD straight through comes as a point of repose between ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’ and the ‘Passacaglia’. ‘Zadok the Red Priest’ cheekily effects a marriage between ‘Zadok the Priest’ and the ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’. It sounds like a happy act of union.

The CD closes with what is described as a ‘bonus track’. This is Red Priest’s performance of the so-called ‘Aria Amorosa’ from the Trio Sonata Op.2 No. ; this was previously issued on an earlier CD Priest on the Run [RP001], so I suppose that, strictly speaking it is only a ‘bonus’ if you don’t already have that earlier CD. Like everything else on Handel in the Wind it is well-worth having on one’s shelves. Handelians with reasonably open minds and ears will surely enjoy this tribute (which is surely what it is) to their musical hero. Handelians of (as they used to say) ‘a nervous disposition’, might be better off averting their ears, I suppose.

Glyn Pursglove

Previous review: Brian Wilson
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