Red Priest: Handel in the Wind (CD review)

The Messiah and other masterworks. Red Priest. Red Priest Recordings RP012.

While Red Priest may sound like the name of a heavy-metal band, it is, in fact, a British Baroque ensemble of four talented classical musicians, folks who take a good deal of pleasure playing period music on period instruments in their own uniquely flashy yet dazzling way. On the present recording the members are Piers Adams, recorder; Julia Bishop, violin; Angela East, cello; and David Wright, harpsichord. As a measure of their typically irreverent, tongue-in-cheek style, the group, which formed in 1997, took their name from the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, nicknamed "The Red Priest" because he was a priest with red hair. The fact that the name should also remind listeners of Judas Priest is part of the fun.

Handel in the Wind marks the group's sixth album together (members have also released albums separately), and it represents their usual playfulness in reinventing the classics. However, I must note that despite their sometimes overzealous pursuit of giving old tunes new meaning, they really do little harm to the originals. Here, Handel remains Handel no matter how unusual the arrangements or cheeky the performances.

Indeed, their reimaginings may win new fans for the old masters. As the group write in a booklet note: "Although Handel might raise an eyebrow if he were to hear our more far-fetched transcriptions, he was no stranger to the concept of arrangement in general--and clearly he knew a good tune when he heard (or wrote) one, shamelessly re-adapting his own material for different contexts. In fact, the very idea of attempting to perform music exactly as the composer would have done (upon which concept the entire edifice of 'authentic performance' is built) is historically invalid; in baroque times the personal whim and creativity of the performer was paramount. And thus this recording came into being, and the Lord saw that it was good."

A lot of people will no doubt find Red Priest's mischief making offensive, especially purists who may think the group is purposely making fun of the music. Other listeners will find it too silly for them. Certainly, the material on the present disc represents an acquired taste, where you will hear mixed in with Handel echoes of Jaws, Harry Potter, James Bond, a little Spike Jones and Marx Brothers, and a good deal of Monty Python. I found it occasionally amusing, often virtuosic, and always entertaining. But, then, I've always been a fan of Peter Schickele's P.D.Q. Bach, too. Part serious, part parody, the crew of Red Priest don't make fun of classical music but make classical music fun, which is all that matters.

Here's the playlist:
  1-15: Suite from The Messiah
     16: Lascia ch'io Pianga
17-20: Trio Sonata in F major, Op. 2 No. 4
     22: The Harmonious Blacksmith Variations
23-24: Largo and Passacaglia in G minor
     25: Zadok the Red Priest
     26: Aria Amorosa (bonus track)

Without paying close attention, the nonclassical listener might mistake much of Red Priest's music as perfectly straight. Listen a little more attentively, and you'll find combinations of eras and composers cobbled together in amusing fashion. Then there are other selections that one cannot mistake for anything but humor, like "The Jaws of Darkness," "Despised and Rejected," "Siciliano Pedicuro," or "Hallelujah." And there are parts, like "The Recorder Shall Sound," that are both fun and astonishingly virtuosic. Often, the music begins in earnest and then sails off into its own playfully decorated world. As I say, fun stuff.

The producers generously fill out the disc with seventy-one minutes of music, including an encore bonus track, "Aria Amorosa," from a previous album.

Producers Gary Cole and Piers Adams and engineer Gary Cole recorded the album at Birley Centre, Eastbourne College, England in May 2014. The sound is pretty much as one would expect from four instrumentalists performing together. They stretch across the sound stage in a fairly close-up manner, the harpsichord slightly recessed, but they don't appear bright or edgy, just smooth warm. Even though I would have preferred a more natural perspective, the sound is more than adequate for the occasion; we shouldn't take any of it too seriously.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa