Red Priest

Pirates of the Baroque

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The outlandish English Baroque group Red Priest has been around since 1997. The chronology of its recordings may be difficult to divine from copyright dates or online date orderings, for the group recently acquired the rights to its earlier albums and began reissuing them on its own Red Priest Recordings label. The first, if you want to take them in sequence, was Priest on the Run. Pirates of the Baroque, however, is not a reissue but an album newly recorded in 2006. It's of a piece with the others, but somewhat different. Whether you're new to Red Priest and wondering where to start or already familiar and interested in following the direction it is going, here's the rundown. Red Priest, whose name comes from Vivaldi's nickname, reduces Baroque scores to a consistent quartet of recorder, violin, cello, and harpsichord. That ensures that, no matter how hairy things get, there's a musical anchor for the listener. And that's good, because as a rule things get plenty hairy. Earlier Red Priest albums have used extended ground-bass Baroque pieces as a foundation for everything from heavy metal to bouzouki music, all executed on the four Baroque instruments. Even when the musicians play the music relatively straight, there are fireworks resulting from tempo alterations, musical quotations, the reassembly of fragments of works into whole new pieces to fit the album's theme, and so on. Pirates of the Baroque offers more of the same, with a wholesale reconceptualization of a group of Couperin keyboard movements into ocean scenes, some amped-up Vivaldi, and enough shouted pirate jargon to make the disc appropriate for your next Talk Like a Pirate Day party. The two ground bass pieces, however, are a bit less outrageous than those on previous releases. The Chaconne of Tomasso Vitali and the famed Albinoni Adagio travel some distance from the original sources, but this time Red Priest seems to be less out to shock and more interested in reflecting on what it is it's doing. Both those pieces look back to an earlier era in which Baroque music was manipulated: the early twentieth century. Red Priest in the notes (in English only) acknowledges a debt to "early twentieth century violinists, who would frequently 'borrow' and re-arrange repertoire from the Baroque era to fit into Romantic recital programs." This line of thought is extended by the inclusion of the Sonata in C minor, Op. 5/2, "La Burrasca," of Giovanni Paulo Simonetti, not a genuine Baroque composer at all but the creation of a German musicologist named Winfried Michel, among whose other accomplishments is the creation of a set of fake Haydn piano sonatas that fooled some of the top scholars in the field. It's all great fun, and no one could charge Red Priest with doing this kind of thing because it doesn't have the chops to play it straight. If you want to know what caused all the fuss, you might pick the Nightmare in Venice album, but Red Priest fans will find lots to enjoy here.

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