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Wild Men of the Seicento - 17th Century Music for Recorder and Harpsichord
Heinrich BIBER (1644-1704)
Sonata No.3 [10:53]
Marco UCCELLINI (1603-1680)
Sonata Nona [5.43]
Andrea FALCONIERI (c.1585-1656)
Dance Suite [3:36]
Jean-Henri D’ANGLEBERT (1629-1691)
Prelude in G minor for harpsichord [2:05]
Giovanni Antonio PANDOLFI MEALLI (c.1630-1670)
Sonata ‘La Cesta’ [5:41]
Jacob VAN EYCK (1590-1657)
Boffons [1:29]
John BULL (c.1563-1628)
Fantasia in D minor for harpsichord [5:59]
Bartolomeo de SELMA Y SALAVERDE (1570-1638)
Canzona Seconda [2:47]
Giovanni Battista FONTANA (d.1630)
Sonata Seconda [5.51]
Fantasia in A minor for harpsichord [2:54]
Dario CASTELLO (c.1590-c.1658)
Sonata Seconda [5:51]
Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713)
Sonata in C major Op.5 No.3 [10:59]
Piers Adams (recorders)
David Wright (harpsichord/organ)
rec. Lewes, England, October 2014

"They came from the South, these crazy musicians, from sun-drenched cities in Italy and Spain: their inspired ideas spread through the continent like wildfire …"

The liner-notes of Red Priest’s latest disc – Wild Men of the Seicento – presents seventeenth-century music for recorder and keyboard. They inform us that these ‘crazy musicians’ were the musical experimenters of the seventeenth century, ‘nowadays confined to the touchlines of musical history’ and tainted with the dismissive label ‘transitional’. ‘Crazy’ might just as fittingly describe the performances of these twentieth-century alchemical instrumentalists themselves. Renowned for their own ‘madcap’ musicianship, Adams and Wright promise to bring us ‘the thrill of the unexpected’ in this recording which explores the uninhibited virtuosity and expressiveness of Il Stilo Moderno.

When I last heard Red Priest perform – at Kings Place in December 2015, where they delivered a characteristically risk-embracing programme entitled Vertigo: Baroque on the Edge – I celebrated the way the ensemble blend theatricality and hyperbole with refinement and unpresumptuous sensitivity, noting that ‘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’. As I settled down to listen to Wild Men of the Seicento, I wondered how the spell-binding dramatic and musical extravagance of their live performances would transfer to a recording.

I should have had no doubts. The improvisatory meanderings which commence the opening item, Heinrich Biber’s Sonata No.3, are instantly hypnotic: Adams and Wright wander from ethereal reflectiveness to rhythmically ebullient dance-like interjections, and intersperse exuberant explosions of incessantly repeating melodic fragments. With each change of mood the listener is magnetically drawn deeper into the musical maelstrom. The range of colour achieved by Adams is extraordinary as he transfers effortlessly between registers and instruments. The tone is always sweet and an extended lyrical episode in the middle of Biber’s sonata is characterised by a beautiful simplicity of phrasing. Wright provides gentle though buoyant support, occasionally indulging in graceful rhetorical flourishes between the recorder’s phrases.

The virtuosity is simply astonishing – almost implausible. In the recorder’s crazily precipitous flights of fancy, every note is articulated cleanly and purely, no matter how many such notes there seem to be in a single second. The triple and quadruple tonguing, and the multiple tones, produce the incredulity that one feels after witnessing a conjuror’s sleight-of-hand: have our ears deceived us? One might be tempted to smile at the cheekiness of the technical tricks, if it were not for the disconcerting profundity and insight that the music seems to point towards.

As we reach the conclusion of Biber’s Sonata, it feels as if we have traversed the entire spectrum of human feeling – from introspection, through restful repose, to warm joyfulness, then on to roiling anxiety. It’s an exhausting but exhilarating emotional journey — ‘psychedelic’ does not seem hyperbolic — and, there is a mesmerising continuity despite the changing moods. This culminates in a final wild romp of breath-taking brilliance as Wright’s repeating harmonic motif, pounding with increasing insistence, propels Adams ever-faster, ever-higher until the sound seems to explode into soundlessness.

Dario Castello’s Sonata Seconda exhibits a similar capriciousness and Wright’s accompaniment is as whimsical and impulsive as Adams melodic intricacies. At times he seems to explore almost pianistic textures, then strumming purposefully, or quixotically interjecting, or delicately stroking and coaxing. The listener has to work hard to absorb the complexities of the musical material as it ceaselessly evolves. However, the effort is a pleasure as we revolve in an aural kaleidoscope of infinite hues and forms; Castello gives us no sense of ‘closure’, simply spins us into silence. The imitative dialogue between recorder and harpsichord at the start of Semla y Salavere’s Canzona Seconda has a debonair levity, but the nuanced harmonic acerbities suggest an underlying mischievousness, even wickedness. This breaks forth in the recorder’s stupendous tumbling cascades – the showers of notes fall like sparkling droplets cascading from a celestial fountain.

Marco Uccellini’s Sonata Nona takes us into more rhapsodic realms. Here, the harmonic explorations of the organ – whose low, sustained tones provide a rich bed for Adams’ invention – creates a compelling spiritual intensity. Such gravity is superseded by growing lightness, as Adams indulges in more ecstatic reflection: it is as if a bird is striving to break free from earthly restraints and soar heavenward. Wright’s organ is a strong counterforce, even as the rapidly climbing assertions and highly ornamented dancing semiquavers accrue impetus. Inevitably, at the close, the bird is pulled back to earth once more.

Carefree liveliness is provided by Giovanni Battista Fontana. Adams produces a delightfully sweet tone in the high ornamental elaborations of Fontana’s Sonata Seconda, above a swaying harpsichord accompaniment. More traditional dances are presented alongside the experimentation. Falconieri’s Dance Suite enchants with its blithe bonhomie (Brando Dicho El Melo), lilting quietude (Corrente Dicha La Cuella) and punchy gleefulness (Il Spiritillo Brando). The variations of Jacob van Eyck’s Boffons tease us with their tongue-twisting twirls and spirals.

Adams and Wright don’t restrict themselves to the music of Italy and Spain. England is represented by the ‘roguish’ John Bull - who, they declare, was ‘more famous for the marring of virgins that the fingering of virginals’. The two harpsichord sonatas offered by Wright suggest that Bull’s ‘waywardness’ embodied itself musically in eccentric improvisatory explorations in which quiet meanderings are juxtaposed with surprisingly assertive pronouncements. Wright has a lovely gentle touch in the more reticent episodes but his harpsichord springs alertly to life in the more energised passages and chordal assertions have a surprising richness. The A minor Fantasia is tender of tone and thoughtful of temperament; the conversation between the upper and lower voices is reflective and probing. Wright’s interpretation perfectly balances serenity with thoughtfulness and the final tierce de Picardie is beautiful, delayed just a fraction to enhance the satisfaction of the resolution. Jean-Henri d’Anglebert’s Prelude in G minor offers a touch of French refinement and solemnity.

The disc ends on less turbulent territory, with Corelli’s Sonata in C major Op.5 No.3, which ‘shows us where all this madness was ultimately leading’. In the Adagio, Adams prioritises grace of line over excessive elaboration; his wonderfully crystalline tone evokes the sparkle of sunlight in a flawless mirror. The recorder’s decorative gestures are pleasingly complemented by delicate trills and imitative flourishes in the right-hand of the keyboard accompaniment. The Allegro is typically brisk, but Adams is not tripped up by leaping figures which lay so easily under a violinist’s fingers. In the final bars the harpsichord’s pummelling replicates the original double-stopping fantasia for violin, above which Adams leaps like a spray of electric sparks. I had a rare moment of hesitation in the second Adagio, where I found the ornamentation less convincing: the idiosyncratic cadence figures, slightly wayward intonation in the lower register and eccentric application of vibrato seemed to me to disrupt the serenity of line. That said, the astonishing and relentless pyrotechnics of the following Allegro, accentuated by Wright’s crisp, dry punctuations, swept away any brief reservations. The Giga dances to an elated conclusion, accelerating recklessly in an outpouring of joy.

The riches of this disc are multifarious: musical, technical, interpretative and expressive. The performers’ own words perfectly bring this review to a close: "And so the Wild Men take their leave, their musical detritus strewn across the hot, hazy landscape of the Mediterranean Seicento, waiting for a pair of crazed musicians from a future age to rediscover their riches …"

Claire Seymour



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