The Daily Telegraph (London)
19th December 2002
Inventive echoes of the baroque
Red Priest is among the new wave of period performance ensembles, and, as this lively pre-Christmas concert showed, it is charting a very distinctive course.
Trends in the playing of early music have been shifting and evolving over the past few decades. Things in general have moved on from those earnest, knit-your-own-lentils days when attempts at "authenticity" in early music often equated to furrow-browed joylessness. With the acquisition of greater mastery in the playing of historical instruments, musicians have gone on to bring a bit of drive and spirit to the music, though often still with the ultimate goal of coming as close as possible to what the music might have sounded like at the time it was written.
Red Priest, a quartet of violin, harpsichord, cello and recorders, has gone a stage further. It has a basis in research, and has doubtless pored over the historically important treatises, but it does not seek to replicate baroque practices to the letter.
What it does do, though, is to use knowledge of how the music might have been played and then interpret it in a highly individual way. And why not? We do not, after all, expect every pianist to play Beethoven or Chopin as if the only criterion were to make it sound like a 19th-century performance.
What Red Priest has done is to demonstrate that the music of Vivaldi and other baroque composers is also open to interpretation and, at times, artistic reinvention, and can gain from an injection of personality.
The title given to this programme, "The Red Priest and the Virgin", was saucily suggestive of a lurid tabloid headline, but Temple Church had no need to fear for its dignity. "Red Priest" was Vivaldi's nickname - deriving not from any proto-communist leanings but from his flame-coloured hair - and, in this context, the Virgin was of course Our Lady, though the reference to her in the title was a touch gratuitous, since she hardly figured in the music at all.
The concert was framed by two Vivaldi concertos, and also contained Corelli's Christmas Concerto, William Byrd's harpsichord piece The Bells and short works by Maurizio Cazzati, Diego Ortiz and Jacob van Eyck.
Purists would probably run a mile from what Red Priest does to this music, but virtuosity, verve and creative spontaneity are fused together in a way that makes the impact positively volcanic.