There is an esteemed tradition of performers who enjoy tipping over the sacred cows of classical music: Gerard Hoffnung, Victor Borge, Anna Russell, Spike Jones, Peter Schickele, and Igudesman & Joo to cite quite a few. The four-person ensemble Red Priest is one of the latest to follow this path, though these world-class virtuosi add variety by occasionally “playing it straight.” Specializing in music of the Baroque as arranged by themselves, they are comprised of Piers Adams, recorders; David Greenberg, violin; Angela East, cello; and David Wright, harpsichord. On Monday evening, July 11, they presented the second of two programs for the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, “Bach and the Pirates.” Red Priest’s stated purpose is to “ignite the imagination and . . . take an alternative look at one of the most colorful periods in musical history.” Certainly, some of their performances did so admirably, but the majority would be classified as musical shtick. One couldn’t claim this was entirely unexpected, when the musicians wore outfits evoking stereotypical pirate garb; in addition, the performers gave spoken introductions that were far from musicological lectures.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Preludio from the Violin Partita, BWV 1006 (perhaps better known as the Sinfonia to Cantata 29), was played with near-manic energy except for the enormous rubati inserted at each transition to a new section and major harmonic shifts. The Baroque stilus phantasticus became a reductio ad absurdum.
The Gypsy Sonata in A Minor, using music of Georg Philipp Telemann as a starting point, showed additional components of Red Priest’s style. The gypsy element naturally led to any amount of sliding pitches from Greenberg’s violin, but amazingly, the other instruments found ways to follow suit — even the harpsichord via glissando. There was also some physical comedy when the string players enjoyed a duet while Adams and Wright walked around the back of the stage admiring the view. Entertaining though it was, it was hardly Telemann.
Giuseppe Tartini’s Senti lo mare (Hear the Sea) was a fortuitous choice of repertoire, given that the back of the stage is a huge window affording the audience a panoramic view of Rockport Harbor. This performance was rather closer to the original with some sound effects added. It opened with harpsichord musings as Adams held a tenor recorder horizontally and blew tonelessly into it for wind effects. There followed a lovely, melancholy trio played by tenor recorder, cello, and violin, rejoined by the harpsichord’s lute stop. Finally, we returned to the opening texture with the strings adding extreme high harmonics, perhaps evoking the cries of sea birds.
The only entirely solo piece on the program was a harpsichord arrangement of George Frideric Handel’s aria Vo’ far guerra as taken down by William Babell from one of Handel’s own improvisations (the only arrangement not by Red Priest). This immediately reminded me of Beethoven’s Rage Over a Lost Penny due to its fury, obsessive repetition and seeming determination to explore every keyboard figuration the composer could imagine: arpeggiated and block chords, scales, Alberti bass, chords hammered in alternation between the hands, octaves, etc. Wright comically acknowledged the excessive repetition when, in the midst of his tour de force, he crossed his legs and got comfy, turned toward the audience, lifted his eyebrows, and shrugged. When it finally ended with a great downward glissando to a crashing tone cluster, one marveled that the harpsichord wasn’t a smoking pile of rubble.
We returned to Bach with the “Arioso” from the F Minor Harpsichord Concerto and “Badinerie” from the Orchestral Suite No. 2. The “Arioso” was reasonably close to the score, though Adams added an interesting pizzicato effect on the bass recorder, playing pitches very staccato and closing the valves percussively. In “Badinerie” Adams displayed dazzling virtuosity on the sopranino recorder, playing the chattery piece faster than I have ever heard it but with impeccable control.
The first half closed with the Concerto in G Major (The Sea Storm) by Antonio Vivaldi, the original “Red Priest.” Adams got a hearty laugh from the audience with one of his remarks: “Our interpretation may not be exactly what Vivaldi intended; on the other hand, he’s dead.” Nonetheless, the outer movements were descriptive of waves and storm winds. The middle movement got the gimmicks: a bit of the Sailor’s Hornpipe worked in, tonelessly high harmonics on the violin, and Wright reaching into the harpsichord to strum the strings, à la George Crumb.
After intermission came Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. The highlight of this performance was the astounding feat of Adams’s playing harmony on two recorders simultaneously for much of the Prelude before settling for one. The fugue was “played straight” and handsomely.
François Couperin’s three pieces, Tromba Marina, Plaint, and Devil’s Hornpipe, were East’s opportunity to shine. She was joined by Greenberg in the first which was in fact a merry jig. The second, characterized by tonic and dominant drones, she did indeed play plaintively. In the final piece, East was rejoined by Wright for a rendering with panache and a modicum of mischief.
The next piece, Bach on G, or “We won’t let her go till you give us back our boat,” was the inspiration for the program’s title: “an innocent violin sonata is hijacked by marauding pirates!” In this case, though, the pirates were from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and accomplished fiddlers. Most of the first movement, Allegro, was pure Bach, violin and harpsichord, but when Greenberg switched from the right side of the stage to left, the “pirates” took over. (The remaining movements were: Poppy Leaf Hornpipe, The Princess Royal Hornpipes I and II, and Miss Charters’ Reel.) From there on it was almost entirely fiddle music, dances so infectious East and Adams couldn’t resist joining in, with Adams successively playing tenor, bass, and sopranino recorders (the last doing a fine penny whistle imitation). Somehow, Bach had more or less convincingly transitioned into a Celtic céilidh.
The Adagio of Tomaso Albinoni may be an example of piracy of another sort: the attribution of a work by a lesser-known composer to a famous one. Remo Giazotto (1910-1998) claimed to have reconstructed this piece from a charred fragment of six measures found after World War II but could never produce said fragment. Red Priest’s rendering of the well-known work alternated between the straight-and-narrow and a seductive Argentinean tango version of it. The conclusion turned jazzy with Adams doing an upward recorder slide à la the Rhapsody in Blue clarinet (how on earth?!) and Wright supplying a bluesy final chord.
Jean-Marie Leclair’s Tambourin was another display piece for sopranino recorder alternating with strings. There was some fun foot-stomping to evoke a drum, and a perfect-fifth drone in the manner of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s harpsichord piece of the same name.
The culmination of the program was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, surely the most famous organ work ever composed. Initially one missed the gravitas of the organ’s sixteen-foot pedal stops, but the arrangement was such a tour de force for the whole ensemble that one adjusted to it soon enough. This magnificent example of stilus phantasticus apparently obviated the need for gimmicks. The brilliant passagework, first played by pairs of instruments then all four in unison, was free but executed with amazingly tight ensemble. The fugue began sedately but accelerated to a very brisk tempo but otherwise took few liberties with the source. After another showy cadenza, the piece ended with an inserted Picardy third–mustn’t end a light-hearted concert in the minor!
A standing ovation demanded an encore which turned out to be another Cape Breton dance number with all the players participating and, except for Wright, moving around the stage while playing. East managed the erect cello-playing with ease and for a moment stole the show by holding and playing her instrument like an overgrown guitar. All in all, it was an entertaining evening. Whether it will win new listeners to the original versions of these pieces, only time will tell.