Perth Festival / Red Priest
St John’s Kirk, Perth
Red Priest were new to me, if not to Perth and St John’s, and this well-attended midweek hoolie had a feeling of joyful reunion, with the CD stall doing brisk business at the interval.
Recorder virtuoso Piers Adams founded the group, using the nickname of composer Vivaldi, over 25 years ago, but with the return of baroque violinist Julia Bishop – whose other gigs have included the Gabrielli Consort, the Academy of Ancient Music and the Hanover Band – the line-up is three-quarters intact, harpsichord player David Wright replacing the late Julian Rhodes.
Bishop, one might speculate, relishes the opportunity to let her hair down. Wright apart, the musicians perform entirely from memory, and both she and Adams left the stage to promenade up close and personal with the audience. Cellist Angela East would likely have joined them if her instrument didn’t necessitate a chair.
That freedom of movement is paired with freedom of expression. There’s improvisation, tonal expansion and all sorts of tempo variation in the Red Priest approach to baroque music – about as far from any po-faced notion of period authenticity as it is possible to get.
For all the choreography, costuming and larking about, however, the final result is less showbiz than it is educational, in the least condescending way. Every piece, however unfamiliar or well known, some of them arranged together in the most singular of sequences, comes with a few words of introduction and a joke or two. No-one left St John’s on Wednesday evening without knowing a little more about Gian Paolo Cima, Anna Magdalena Bach or the music of the court of the Sun King.
Ideas about the possibilities of the recorder were surely revised as well, as Adams applied an extended range of embouchure techniques, some of them highly percussive, to the full pitch range of instruments. His digital dexterity was matched by all of his colleagues, with East’s cello also adding percussion as well as bass to the mix.
Her solo feature was a fresh take on a well-known Bach Prelude, and the repertoire successfully mixed the very familiar with the downright obscure, often in startling juxtaposition. Only Wright’s Couperin Chaconne perhaps overstayed its welcome in what was a slick, pacy performance, and that work’s uncanny prediction of 20th century minimalism still merited its inclusion.
At other points we were more in the realm of the traditional music session’s sets of jigs and reels, and the volume the acoustic quartet managed to produce without any sacrifice of detail or articulation was often remarkable. It was perhaps too easy to miss that level of technical excellence in a gig that was mostly about pure fun.