Nobody is entirely sure where the well-known ‘gypsy’ sound of the 17th and 18th centuries came from; almost certainly not the Roma themselves, whose musical traditions were largely vocal. Seemingly there may be a Jewish influence (and sometimes it seems to have similar roots to Klezmer), and possibly even sources in Northern India. Certainly, though, there was a creative synergy between composers such as Biber and Telemann and court-employed ‘gypsy bands’ of the period that gave to posterity the inimitable sound of the virtuoso violin underscored by rhythmic, syncopated modal accompaniment from the ensemble, and led to the immense popularity of the violin with 18th– and 19th-century middle-class audiences who sought a frisson of the libertine ‘other’ from the likes of Vivaldi and Paganini.
Who better, then, to provide an evening exploring the relationship between gypsy music and the baroque, than the ‘wholly irreverent and highly enlightened’ early-music group, Red Priest, whose concert on Sunday (coinciding with a release of their album of the same material) was a pyrotechnic, witty and intelligent exploration of the repertoire through a series of arrangements for the group’s forces.
All of the arrangements were by the group themselves (or by Adam Summerhayes, their violinist), and covered pieces by Biber, Telemann, Campra, Handel, Mieczewski, Byrd, Nicholson and Vivaldi – the original red priest.
Piers Adams, playing a variety of recorders from the tiniest piccolino, through flageolets of various types to a large bent-neck bass was a master of the quick change, and demonstrated the full possibilities of all his instruments – flutter-tonguing in the outrageously improvised version of Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga, and providing rhythm through a stopped percussive technique in pieces such as Summerhayes’ arrangement of the Anonymous 18th-century Sweet Uhrovska. Summerhayes himself gave us some splendid violin playing – grand flourishes and glissandi throughout, including the expected busy fiddling in Vivaldi’s A-minor concerto (from l’estro armonico) and the group’s arrangement of the rustic third movement of Telemann’s E-minor flute/recorder concerto. He proved equally adept at the baroque guitar, the melodica and even, for a brief moment in the Vivaldi, the gemshorn.
Aided and abetted by Angela East’s versatile cello playing (ranging from a pizzicato tango in the Vivaldi to a seductively sonorous solo introduction to Campra’s La Bohémienne) and David Wright’s accomplished – and occasionally frenzied – harpsichord playing, the group provided an evening of cleverly arranged music that displayed their usual impish sense of humour – incorporating, in places, the themes from Blackadder, The Pink Panther and Love Story, as well as the occasional snatch of Handel’s Water Music.
But… but. Although the concert was intelligent, witty and entertaining, a certain ennui eventually set in. The tropes of gypsy music are quite limited – no matter how scintillatingly they demonstrate technical brilliance – and after a while, the swooshes and glissandi, the furious bowing and fingerwork, the ever-present syncopated rhythm and the non-stop modal harmony began to pall, and the realisation that one can have too much of a gaudy carnival dawned. Such arrangements perhaps, then, work best as lollipops or encores in a more traditional baroque concert – indeed, the ‘straight’ arrangements played (Handel’s Aria and Passacaglia, and the slow movement from Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto performed as an encore) provided, in the manner of a photographic negative, an enjoyable contrast to the blare of the fairground. A CD to be sampled in small doses, perhaps, rather than given a through-playing.