Artist Vs. Critic
Review By John Shnniers
CD Number: Tudor 7141
Editors Note: Back in July 2004, our reviewer John Shinners published a scathing review of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons as arranged and performed by the Baroque ensemble Red Priest [click here to read the review]. Some 16 months later, in November 2005, John received a letter from Piers Anders, recorder virtuoso and leader of Red Priest, taking issue with the review and arguing that it reflected a lack of understanding of proper Baroque performance practice. John offered a spirited reply, launching a brief exchange of views on the subject.
John subsequently told me about that correspondence, and at my request compiled the full sequence of their exchange. I was impressed by both the passion and civility evident on both sides, and I think Enjoy the Music.com® readers who are Interested in such matters will find the discussion stimulating.
Wayne Donnelly, classical music editor
[November 19, 2005]
I've recently been sent a rather cutting review you wrote last year of [Red Priest's] Four Seasons CD. I have rarely moved been moved to "reply" to a critic — after all, everyone is entitled to like or dislike something — but feel that in this case there are misrepresentations which possibly shouldn't have made it to press. My comments are inserted below — I'd be interested to hear your replies.
Yours in the spirit of open-minded debate...
You wrote: "Here are two discs that address the classic tension between the ability and the desirability of doing something. Just because we can record Vivaldi's complete choral music, should we? Just because the absence of copyright means we can re-arrange his music to make it more ‘accessible,' should we? In this case, the answers are definitive: a big yes to the first, a big no to the second."
The art of (re-)arrangement has been practised for hundreds of years–I don't see the relevance of your comment about copyright. Would your comment also apply to the re-arrangements of the Seasons which were published in the 18th century (such as those by Chedeville and Rousseau)? Or to Bach's very free adaptations of Vivaldi's concerti? Are these, somehow, OK because they were made in the past?
You wrote: "Red Priest, who call themselves after the red-haired Vivaldi's nickname ‘il prete rosso,' is a quartet (recorder, violin, harpsichord, and cello) that has lately been offering ‘arrangements' of baroque pieces. In his notes to their take on Vivaldi's Four Seasons, his most famous collection of concertos, recorder player Piers Adams attempts to justify their drastic re-working of the familiar, explaining that ‘earnest attempts to re-create what an original performance might have sounded like have often run the risk of turning living art into a museum piece, and it sometimes takes a radical new view to re-appreciate the soul of a work.' For them, discovering the ‘soul of the work' means serving it up as Vivaldi-Lite, tampering in perverse ways with tempi, which rev radically up and down like a car with a bad transmission."
I'm sorry you hear our free approach to tempo thus, but you should know that we are actually applying 18th century rules of tempo variation, as written about copiously by musicians and commentators of the time. The idea of a fixed tempo was alien in all except dance music, and a good musician was expected to change the mood–in the words of Quantz–at each and every barline; or to vary the tempo to a speed sometimes half, and sometimes as much as twice the starting pace – see the philosophy section of our website www.redpriest.com for many examples.
You wrote: [Red Priest is] staggeringly literal-minded about underscoring his extra-musical allusions (so that the barking dog subtly evoked in his original ‘Spring' all but has its nose in your crotch here), and–most egregiously–inserting willfully gratuitous musical additions throughout: a whiff of ‘Flight of the Bumblebee' in the Presto of ‘Summer,' a late-50s rock ballad accompaniment to the Largo of ‘Winter,' country music twangs in the Allegro of ‘Autumn,' and–I'm not making this up–'God Save the Queen' in that same concerto's Adagio. If the cover didn't say otherwise, you might mistake this for one of Peter Schickele's P. D. Q. Bach parodies, except Schickele has wit. It's all very ‘crossover,' very self-indulgent, and very dismissive of Vivaldi's greater artistry and the average listener's intelligence."
With all respect I would say that the vast majority of our listeners, who enjoy and see the point of what we do — music critics and professors included — are more likely to find your review than our interpretations dismissive of their intelligence.
You wrote: "Here, it is Red Priest's heavy-handed attempt at musical ‘improvement' rather than familiarity that breeds contempt."
"Improvement" is your word, not ours. It was never our intention to create something "better" than the original, but merely, in a field obsessed with a (frequently misguided) sense of "correctness" to put forward a new perspective which might be enjoyable for some, and which might also in its freedom and experimentation contain more of the spirit of the baroque than many of today's "correct" performances. And, to state the obvious, what would be the point of a 1000th copycat recording of the Seasons?
You wrote: "It's a shame, too, for the players in Red Priest are clearly talented. For instance, Piers Adams's recorder runs in the Allegro of ‘Winter' are breathtaking in their speed and accuracy. But it is all in vain. The King's Consort's beautiful multi-volume survey of Vivaldi's endless creativity demonstrates a lesson Red Priest needs to learn: if you play old standards well with empathy, respect, and understanding, there is no need to tamper perversely with what the composer wrote to make them accessible and enjoyable to modern ears."
I agree there is no need, just as there is no life-or-deathneed for any new artistic endeavour.... But if we are to accept that art has a relevance to our culture, then personal expression, rather than mere regurgitation, has to be a part of that process. Red Priest has never claimed to be an "authentic" ensemble in the mold of Kings Consort et al–in fact I would describe our approach as a personal one drawing from both the authenticity movement and from myriad other sources, with the goal of finding a relevant, contemporary means of expression. It is important to remember that the idea of a performer separated from the creative process is unique to our age and culture, and would not have been recognised in Vivaldi's day; thus there is a paradox at the heart of the whole "authentic movement–the very act of re-creating some hypothetical past performance is in itself "inauthentic." Whilst the Kings Consort et al provide a valuable service in making obscure works known, theirs is a mission which will have a finite lifespan: eventually every baroque piece of merit will have been consigned permanently, and "correctly," to disc. Do you posit that we should all stop at that point and put our feet up with a glow of self-satisfaction? Surely if music is to remain a living art then the concept of performer as arranger/co-composer must be revived.
So, once again, I stress that I have no problem with you disliking our musical choices, but I do wish you would not make general statements about what is an entirely subjective opinion.
Vivaldi (Red Priest)
Enjoyment: <zero> [Oh, come on...]
[November 20, 2005]
Thank you for taking the time from your music-making to write.... Allow me to respond to your thoughts about my review of Red Priest's recording of the Four Seasons.
First, I have no argument with re-arrangement. As you note, it was standard eighteenth-century practice. We'd be shy a lot of Vivaldi... and Bach, Telemann, etc. if they hadn't constantly re-arranged either themselves or the fellow-composers from whom they so regularly borrowed. Obviously, too, there is a long tradition of later composers rearranging the works of their predecessors to make them more "accessible" to contemporary audiences. I think of Mahler's "Retuschen" of Beethoven symphonies or, more appropriate here, of Mozart's re-orchestration of Handel's Messiah or, even better, of Eugene Goossen's – with those anachronistic, hilarious, but nevertheless glorious cymbal crashes in the Hallelujah chorus.
Likewise, I have no argument with inconstant tempi in baroque music, though I think Red Priest overdoes it in the case of the Seasons. Given the arguments listeners have about tempi even when they're indicated by metronome markings, as in some Beethoven symphonies, I don't know how the idea of "correct" tempo can be judged other than by the aesthetic effect it produces. It's largely a matter of taste and your choices, sorry to say, didn't work for me.
I am less comfortable with what I thought was the rather frenetic and indiscriminate (a word I suspect you will debate) license Red Priest employs–at least on this disc–to help your listeners re-imagine what eighteenth-century music-making must have been like. Here we have obviously entered the shadowy field of degree: how much can we re-arrange before the original piece has been obscured rather than enhanced or revealed? I suspect the two of us would disagree where that boundary lies and the boundary itself would be fluid depending on whether we were applying 18th-, 19th-, 20th-, or 21st-century standards. But it also strikes me as a bit presumptuous for you to think that your re-imagining/re-arranging will help us "re-appreciate the soul of the work," whatever that elusive animal might be. On the other hand, one person's presumptuousness is another person's inspired creativity. After all, all musical performance strives for some sort of revelation.
How musical traditions and genres interact is, of course, a fascinating subject, one that clearly interests Red Priest. I can't think of an era in western music where "serious" composers (from Josquin's Missa l'homme armée to Glass's Low Symphony and half the music in between) didn't borrow from popular genres and vice versa. Certainly the baroque era was no exception to the crossover phenomenon. Maybe that's what you had in mind when you inserted those twentieth-century musical references into the Seasons. But aesthetically it didn't work for me at all. It distracted from rather than enhanced both my enjoyment and understanding of Vivaldi. I felt I was getting less the "soul" of Vivaldi than the "soul" of Red Priest.
Yes, of course baroque music was much more prone to improvisation than we realized until the last few decades. But your Vivaldi larded with Rimsky-Korsakov, country music, and "God Save the Queen," seems utterly anachronistic. I'm happy for Schnittke to quote all the music of the past he wants, but to quote forward as you do here strikes me as at least puzzling if not perverse. I don't see how this kind of anachronism captures the spirit of the baroque in an enlightening, non-intrusive way, which for me is key. It may be entertaining, but it did nothing to enhance my enjoyment of the Seasons.
To this extent, I thought your recording called more attention to Red Priest than Vivaldi. I grant you that the split between composer and performer is of relatively recent date, but I didn't think Red Priest's re-touchings fused that rift to the advantage of Vivaldi. Again, this is one person's view, which is always any critic's Achilles' heel. Having just now Googled some of your other reviews, I would seem to be in the minority in finding your artistry here intrusive rather than exciting and revealing. Far be it from me to hobble your own efforts to be creative and expressive, but perhaps the cover of your CD should more clearly advertise that this is not your grandfather's Vivaldi. Or maybe your reputation precedes you with most listeners. In my case, apologies; I knew nothing about you or your approach until your disc arrived and I listened to it and read your liner notes.
I guess it's worth noting that I am a medieval historian by professional training so the question of how we recover and use the past is not uninteresting to me. I have never been comfortable with the approach to studying the past that tries to make us sympathetic to the people of the past by finding all those happenstance traits in them that strike us as "modern" and then asks us to see them "just like us." Though it's unavoidable in any kind of history, that approach is seeing the past in our terms; we should resist it insofar as we can. The past is a strange country. I think we risk distorting it if we try to force it into our expectations of what it should be. Applying this standard to the interpretation of past music, my measure would be, "What would the composer think?" In the case of Red Priest's rendition of the Seasons, Vivaldi might well say that it delighted him, but I doubt that he would say "Yes, that's just what I had in mind when I wrote it." (That's why I question your goal of using a twenty-first century aesthetic, no matter how well grounded in eighteenth-century musical practice, to rediscover the "soul" of Vivaldi.) Your enhancements of Vivaldi struck me as this kind of modernizing and also maybe a little patronizing since it assumes that Vivaldi must be made to wear modern dress for us to appreciate his inventiveness. Whatever your own artistic agenda is–entertainment, pedagogy, or both–however admirable, gratifying, or profitable it may be, I think that, at least on this disc, you achieve it at the expense of Vivaldi. At least for me, it failed to entertain, which in the end is a fairly basic goal of art.
Judging by Red Priest's generally glowing reviews and international reputation, your approach to Vivaldi's timeworn Seasons and other baroque repertoire certainly seems to engage audiences in live performance. It even educates them and helps them re-imagine an old favorite. But for me your re-imagining was rather willful and self-indulgent, superimposing your own aesthetic agenda on top of (at the expense of?) a piece that, at least to my taste, can still speak for itself without the need for added, modern, musical commentary. (Yes, this begs the question of how any modern performance can ever "authentically" recover past music or even if that should be a goal. That's another debate.) For me your interpretation was a distraction rather than a revelation; a modern curtain thrown over an older work that called attention to itself rather than to the work. In fact, I thought it got old fast and really wearied me by the end of the disc. Maybe if I saw you in live performance where your music-making seems to be intentionally theatrical and your commentary more explicit I would have a different sense. But in this case, I had only my ears to judge.
It's clear that you and your colleagues have a deep knowledge of eighteenth-century music and its performance practice; clear, too, that you have thought through what your own aesthetic of performance is and that you are all very accomplished musicians. However, for all that–forgive me for being blunt–your approach to the Seasons sounded contrived to me. I came away from your recording not more enlightened about Vivaldi but simply annoyed by what I judged to be your excessive license (again, you will argue with this phrase) in modernizing him. I know this will seem a harsh and simplistic assessment. But I thought your arrangements were too "in-your-face"; however thoughtful they may have been in design, in performance they didn't invite me to give them the benefit of the doubt since their aggressiveness was off-putting. It's clearly an approach that works for Red Priest and serves your musical goals, and audiences certainly seem to enjoy your musicianship and showmanship, but it didn't work at all for me. All artists work from past influences and contemporary artists are even more prone to be overt about quoting those influences (Schnittke again!). But perhaps Vivaldi is so overly-familiar that your re-imagining can come across as too transgressive. Paradoxically, your group plays so well and sometimes so straight that your over-the-top insertions often seem less playful and more contemptuous–at least to me. Let's face it: Vivaldi's Seasons is about the most programmatic mainstream piece of eighteenth-century music there is. You'd have to go to some of Rameau's ballets or something really off the beaten path like Biber's Battaglia to find another piece of music more overt about representing objects (twittering birds, barking dogs, lightening, raindrops, etc.) through sound. This is probably why the Seasons is one of the first works of baroque music played for children: its musical program is so obvious that everyone "gets" it. With that in mind, Red Priest's stress on these elements seems to me to be overkill; it belabors the obvious. Whatever its intent, it struck me as heavy-handed.
Here, I guess, is the nub of our disagreement. I want my Vivaldi as relatively unencumbered as thoughtful performance practice can deliver it. (I realize that no performance is ever free of interpretive assumptions, conscious and unconscious.) Red Priest is more attracted to thoughtful "relevant, contemporary means of expression," to quote you. Your intent is to recapture the spirit of the baroque by using its music as a springboard for your own self-expression which in turn reveals baroque technique. My answer would be that that spirit can speak through the music without adding our overtly modern glosses, whether they be Goossen's cymbals or your interpolation of "Flight of the Bumblebee." Our disagreement is not quite the "querelles des Bouffons" but it does by its nature pose some incompatibilities. Obviously my review reflects the conservative side of the argument. If I overstated my case, I was trying to judge by what I heard. Had I not paired your CD with my review of the King's Consort's traditional approach, perhaps I would have heard it with a more forgiving ear, though I have my doubts.
Every artistic endeavor is of its own time no matter how revolutionary it seems at the time or looks in retrospect. In the end, time will judge us all. Fifty years from now, your interpretation of Vivaldi (when it is reissued in some post-CD format) will strike its hearers as quaint as Goossen's cymbals in Handel strike us today. It will be seen as revealing of a late-20th/early 21st- century "post-modern" sensibility as any other artistic artifact of our era. For the present, it clearly appeals to a very wide audience though, regrettably, it didn't appeal to me.
To the degree that Red Priest has entertained far many more thousands than I ever have, to the degree that your crossover approach has introduced or re-introduced your audiences to milestones in our musical heritage in an era that routinely neglects them, I applaud you. To the degree that your recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons served it to me in a mode that revealed its enduring pleasures, I sit on my hands. In the end, I guess I'm reduced to the critic's hoariest cliche: "chacun à son gout."
[November 21, 2005]
Maybe the most important thing – and one upon which perhaps we agree – is that classical music is kept alive, preferably in a format free from wet T-shirts and disco drumbeats. People tell us that that is what we achieve, on the whole, and that is why we continue to strive for "original" ways of looking at the music. An incredible amount of time and energy goes into our interpretations, in stark contrast to those of many of today's best known baroque interpreters, who will spend all of 3 hours preparing for a performance or recording of the Seasons (we spent days and often weeks per movement, over an 18-month period). Red Priest was formed in part in reaction to what we saw as a very lazy, unthinking, "auto-baroque" approach which seems to be prevalent in the industry.
I fully agree with what you say about "modernising" history. However our approach isn't really about that–we are not claiming that our performances are "authentic" in the sense that the music might actually have sounded like that, nor, strange as it may seem, are we even especially concerned whether or not the composers themselves would have enjoyed our take on their music. The issue boils down essentially to whether we must live in reverence of the past, or in celebration of our own creativity. My strong feeling is that composers of the past occupied the latter state, and that the former is an artificial one. The corollary of that theory is that we should be totally free to experiment with any music that is in the public domain – as long as we do so with skill and dedication, and with a genuine desire to uplift our audiences – or at least the great majority of them!
[Tuesday, November 22]
Actually, based on the excerpts from your second e-mail to me (Nov. 21), I think I finally grasp what you're up to. If I understand correctly, what Red Priest is trying to do is to strip away all the encrusted traditions that have characterized concert music since the evolution of the conductor, copyright (with its sense of a sacrosanct artistic product), and the concert hall itself. It strikes me that today most astute musical organizations realize that serving up classical music in the "old-fashioned" way (i.e., the traditions of the mid-nineteenth to twentieth-century concert hall) will not sustain the evolution of or the audience for "serious" music. As you know, many modern orchestras are now trying to adapt their musical forces to meet the more eclectic needs that both contemporary music and historically-informed performance demand. The giant modern orchestra itself may well be on the way to becoming a "period" phenomenon. I think of Steve Reich, one of our most thoughtful and innovative contemporary composers, who says that he no longer intends to compose works for the traditional symphony orchestra.
Red Priest, then, is trying to recover the intimacy, spontaneity, and personal expression that marked music before the tyranny of the written score and the conventions of the concert hall locked us into an overly reverential attitude toward the concert-going experience. (Do you know James Johnson's illuminating book from a few years ago, Listening in Paris: A Cultural History, which is a marvelous evocation and analysis of shifts in concert hall etiquette in the period around the French Revolution? He charts how "respectability" settled over the concert hall.)
I still don't think this fascinating aesthetic project worked on the Four Seasons disc. In retrospect, I would blame this on two things primarily. First, as I said in my last note, the Seasons is both such a warhorse and so overtly programmatic that any revisions of it either jar because they crash against its over-familiarity, subverting our expectations in a way that, at least for me, disorients rather than reveals, or they highlight the program that is already pretty obvious in the music. I'll have to sample some of your other recordings of works a little more off the beaten path to test my hypothesis here. In fact, I thought the Corelli on the Vivaldi disc worked better. Second, like all recorded performances, this one denies us the face-to-face interaction that is such a vital part of music-making. No matter how great the recording, it will always pale in comparison to the intimacy of live performance. It's the curse of recorded music that we let this simulacrum of reality fool us into thinking that we've got the real deal; we constantly try to upgrade our sound technology in pursuit of capturing an experience that truly only works "on site."
[Friday, November 25]
Much as I'd enjoy expanding on some of the points I've made, and discussing some of yours further, I'm afraid this really has caught me at a busy time (apart from everything else, preparing to be a parent for the first time) so I'm going to have to leave my brief epistle to speak for itself! However, I've re-read it and I think it does at least get across the nub of the argument. I'd be interested to see if any readers have comments to make on the exchange.
Thanks for your time and interest in discussing your views — I think it really helps to understand a different perspective, especially in something as subjective as musical interpretation and appreciation. I'll look forward to seeing our exchange in (virtual) print.