Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.
Recorder and Recordings
It is a truth which should be universally acknowledged that a schoolchild in possession of a recorder should be in want of a YouTube clip of Red Priest.
Piers Adams, Recorder Player With Red Priest
Red Priest: Gypsy Baroque Fantasy. Inspiring and Irreverent
A False Start? A Schoolchild's First Experience of the Recorder
Descant recorders have traditionally been handed out in year three classrooms as a supposedly serious introduction to the world of music. For some inexplicable reason it’s viewed as easy to learn. Really? Is any member of the woodwind family an easy touch?
Think back to your own experience. As I remember, it was a gift of an opportunity for those mass-produced pipes barely one step up from a tin whistle to be blown into at the top of seven-year-old lungs. With ear-piercing imprecision I might painfully add.
How many of those rowdy children improve beyond deafening all within the school boundary? Why would they want to? After all, it’s only a thin piece of plastic with a few holes in it. Holes which, more often than not, failed to be fully covered by little fingers to prevent an inevitable screech. What a pity the infinitely preferable but more expensive wooden recorder isn’t made available to beginners. That would both mellow the high-pitched cacophony and demonstrate the true beauty of tone. Asking for trouble from the start, I’d say. Where’s the incentive to squeak beyond the first phrase of Three Blind Mice?
Red Priest is that incentive. Children love naughty. This group is outrageous.
The Subversive Recorder
On recorder is the charismatic Piers Adams. He plays all members of the recorder family, the most familiar being descant, treble, alto and bass. Most commonly he plays the treble, which a little lower in pitch than the descant with more of a dulcet tone.
His hands have transformed this seemingly modest stick of hollowed out wood into a magic wand, dazzling all who are lucky enough to be passing nearby. Put aside any notion of the recorder as humble and lowly; be prepared to have those preconceptions overturned.
Red Priest are the ultimate entertainers. This is Baroque with bollocks, an explosion of showmanship and a laugh out loud experience to watch. Why would a schoolchild not be inspired to follow in such irreverent footsteps? Piers Adams has turned the perception of the recorder on its head.
Had you lived in an earlier age, you might have suspected Adams was possessed by the devil such is his ability to mesmerise an audience with his audacious and prodigious technical ability. Certainly, he is a modern-day pied piper conjuring up admiring followers leading them a merry dance into the glorious flights of fancy he has created with his chosen instrument.
Red Priest - Vivaldi Four Seasons - Spring - Allegro
The Four Seasons With Added Seasoning
Classical and well known favourites are subjected to a re-enactment such as you’ve not heard before. Take Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as an example.
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Violinist Nigel Kennedy’s recording from 1989 comes over as tame in comparison these days, a tiny grain of grit in an otherwise unremarkable oyster though it was hailed as a breakthrough reconditioning of this rather overplayed concerto at the time. On the other hand, Red Priest, seizes the whole score and dunks it fully into a barrel of naughtiness with the type of barefaced cheek you’d associate with a Jack Russell.
It zips along with electrically charged eccentricity. You simply can’t help but be entertained by the group’s energised personality. They deliver a complete restatement, irreverent from start to finish, poking fun at die hard purists; even they could not fail to be grudgingly impressed by the flamboyant wit of their rebellious frontman. Nimble fingers cock a snoop at a straight laced approach to the classical music genre. I, for one, would not want it any other way.
Red Priest Spicing Up Vivaldi
The Red Priest
Vivaldi himself was no stranger to controversy and was dubbed the Red Priest by his contemporaries due to his Titian coloured hair. However the title has overtones of disapproval, red being a symbol for danger or the devil, probably because of the way he escaped the rigours of a catholic father’s life.
Having taken holy orders, he soon ducked out of priestly duties citing asthma as preventing him from carrying out his religious obligations. Yet he had the energy to write volumes upon volumes of music and go on tour with two young female singers, to which a largely blind eye was turned by the church. I bet there was many a vestment-clad man wishing he could have pulled a stunt like that.
Caricature of Vivaldi
Pirates of the Baroque
A Decline in the Recorder's Popularity
Certainly at least as early as the time of the crusades, the recorder had been enjoying a significant place in musical circle and often were played in groups called consorts. Recorders of varying pitch, usually compromising of the descent or soprano as the top voice, descending downwards through treble, alto and bass produced a pleasing harmonious sound suitable for intimate venues.
In the eighteenth century, composers of all abilities produced concertos and sonatas for talented musicians to show off the range of considerable virtuosic possibilities these softly spoken instruments could produce. But orchestras started to increase in size. As new instruments such as the clarinet and trombone were introduced and the percussion section grew beyond recognition the recorder’s small voice could not compete, and the louder transverse flute took its place.
The following century became the equivalent of the doldrums for the recorder. In the main, composers stopped writing for it and it became somewhat of a second class citizen.
The Recorder: Winning Hearts and Minds
In 2012, at the age of sixteen, Charlotte Barbour-Condini won the woodwind final of Young Musician of the Year, held bi-annually in Britain, firmly placing the recorder back on the map
Charotte Barbour-Condini Plays the Final of BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012
Bringing the Recorder Back Into Popularity
Only the diehards kept the recorder’s profile from slipping into obscurity. At the end of the nineteenth century, the French born enthusiast Arnold Dolmetsch was one of the most prominent figures who sought to bring it in from the wilderness His general interest in early music included ancient instruments such as viols and harpsicord which, like the recorder, had also fallen out of favour. After the first world war Dolmetsch started to make recorders at premises in Haslemere in England.
Following in Dolmetch’s pioneering footsteps in the 1970s, an English graduate from Cambridge University turned his attention from literature to music igniting renewed interest in the recorder. He and another contemporary, Frans Bruggen, persuaded enlightened gramophone companies to make recordings of music from the Baroque era and earlier, raising the profile of the recorder and other instruments that had been hitherto languishing except in very specialised circles..
These two virtuosi players signalled the modern recovery in the fortunes of the recorder, encouraging more musicians to take it up as their preferred instrument. Composers began to notice it again. Some top performers had works specifically written for them, such as the wonderful Michala Petri who inspired Malcolm Arnold and Richard Harvey to produce concertos for her.
A Variety of Recorders
The Recorder in its Rightful Place
Nowadays authenticity of performance has become all the rage, but it doesn’t preclude twists in the form of Red Priest who kick any nod to rigid performance practice into touch.
Whether playing straight or bending the rules, I think how wonderful it is that this little pipe has bounced back from the sidelines of classical musical culture along with its unique timbre. The recorder's dark ages are well and truly at an end.
Children have a true hero in their midst. Take advantage of Red Priest and show them music is fun whether they chose to learn the recorder or something else. And children can happily learn to trill and thrill to their hearts' content.
© 2017 Frances Metcalfe