Wednesday 4 July 2012

Piers Adams – A Virtuoso Recorder Player

The recorder’s history disappears into the mists of time with primitive examples of recorder like instruments made of bone dating to as early as the Iron Age. However, the term ‘recorder’ was not used until much later, with the term ‘whistle’ or ‘pipe’ used for a variety of what appear to be similar instruments.

The earliest reference to the word ‘recorder’ appears in an account book of the house of Henry, Earl of Derby (c.1366 – 1413). It was this Henry that, in 1399, deposed Richard II, thereby taking the crown of England to become Henry IV. Those who watched the recent BBC2 television production of Shakespeare’s Richard II will be well aware of this Henry.

The reference in Henry’s account book refers to a payment made for a ‘fistula nomine Ricordo’. (literally ‘reed pipe with the name of Ricordo’). Whether this referred to what was later termed a recorder, which is a duct flute with thumbhole and seven finger holes, is not clear.

During the 15th century the recorder was made in increasingly different sizes to facilitate use in consort playing. There are pictures of such consorts with recorders being played together. A consort could consist of descant, treble (or alto), tenor and bass recorders.

As pitch varied from one set of recorders to another there were obvious problems of tuning when various players came together. The composer Praetorius came up with the idea of making recorders in two pieces in order to facilitate tuning, though this idea was not widely taken up at the time.

By the Baroque period, recorders had a more penetrating sound that enabled their use in such music as Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.2.

By the middle of the 17th century the recorder was becoming less popular as it was found to be unsuitable for the more expressive music which, by then, was being written. The transverse flute took over from the recorder and it was not until the 20th century that there was a revival in recorder playing.

Despite this illustrious history, during the 20th century and even for some people today, the recorder has been associated purely with school music.

There have been many fine recorders players in recent years who have dispelled this myth but, if anyone still needs reminding that the recorder is much more than a simple school instrument, this new release from RPR (Red Priest Recordings) of Piers Adams playing a variety of works on an even greater variety of recorders will certainly do that – and more.     

If you don’t already know the name of Piers Adams then you may know of his group of musicians Red Priest who have made their name with their entertaining, over the top, but incredibly virtuosic performances both on disc and at live venues.

I have heard Piers Adams live on a couple of occasions and with Red Priest and in which ever guise you hear him he is a consummate artist but also a great entertainer, giving performances that are great fun.

This new CD from RPR (previously issued by Albany Records) has much of the same effect, amazing the listener with the sheer technical mastery of his instruments.  

From the opening variations by the blind recorder player Jacob van Eyck (c.1590-1657) there is phenomenal playing from Piers Adams. The piece that gives this disc its title ‘The English Nightingale’ and which concludes the disc is also by van Eyck and gives a virtuosic display with bird song effects.

There is also poetic beauty in the Divisions on ‘Onques Amour’ by Giovanni Bassano (c.1550-1617) with a simple organ accompaniment by Howard Beach. The bright and cheerful Sonata in G by William Croft (1678-1727) is a delight as is an arrangement of the Trio Sonata Op.5 No.4 by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) where Piers Adams is joined by Howard Beach (organ) and David Watkin (cello) in a performance that provides superb ensemble.

There are two pieces for solo flute by George Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) where, in these transcriptions for recorder, Piers Adams shows amazing articulation.

Moving to the beginning of the 19th century Piers Adams plays two works by Ernst Kraehmer (1795-1837), himself a virtuoso recorder player, a Concert Polonaise where the beginning sounds more like Victorian parlour music before becoming more virtuosic and Rondeau Hongrois where the timing between Adams and Beach (fortepiano) is spot on.

Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750) is also represented here by his Flute Sonata in G minor BWV 1034 in an attractive transcription for recorder, harpsichord and cello, played with all the pathos, spirit and technical accomplishment that one could wish for, showing that these players provide more than just sheer showmanship but refined musicianship.

The Sonata Primo by Venetian musician Dario Castello  (fl.1625) provides some of the most thrilling and technically demanding playing of the whole disc.

This CD is great fun as well as showing just what great a recorder player Piers Adams is. The recording is produced by Ben Turner and couldn’t be bettered, with an excellent balance between instruments.

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