Tuesday, July 10, 2012


I'm at a gathering of early music fanatics, nerds, experts, amateurs, devotees. It's Amherst Early Music, going now for several decades, but not currently taking place in Amherst. We're at the beautiful campus of Connecticut College, overlooking Long Island Sound, and, yes, there is a nice breeze off the sound and the temperatures are pleasant.

I'm working on recorder techniques, some Renaissance music, some baroque, singing Schütz's incredible German Requiem (Deutsches Exequien). I did some English country dancing tonight, too, to get the feet moving as well as the fingers, the tongue, the diaphragm, and all the rest that you need to sing and play.

Tonight there was a concert by the Bay-area recorder quartet named Farallon. Since the theme of this workshop is German music, they played from about 8 centuries of German composers, from Hildegard to Bach (the art of the fugue). These four people must have played about 25 recorders total.

Most was played on Renaissance recorders, which have wider bores and much less dependable fingering and intonation than the more stable and standard Baroque recorder.

The Hildegard piece (their arrangement) took advantage of the rich, open, wide tone of that recorder, creating a mood of meditative chanting with octave drones while the wonderful melodies spun out.

Three pieces by the early 16th-century master Ludwig Senfl showed the intricacy and complexity that the Renaissance courts demanded (Senfl worked for the Emperor Maximilian): I got the sense that these courts (like the Tudors, about whom Hilary Mantel has just now been writing her dark novels) must have loved intrigue, political complications and machinations, if they loved this fascinating but often inscrutable music. You can hear Farallon play Senfl on YouTube. They also have a CD of Senfl.

Pieces from the anonymous anthology called the Glogauer Liederbuch (late 15th century) showed a remarkable modernity, if it is fair to use that term about something that of course owes no debt to our confused era. Their polyrhythms showed up beautifully on the clear recorder quartet. A little less successful to my taste was their transcription of an 18th-century orchestral suite: the obviously-written-for-strings gestures didn't translate terribly well. A very slinky version of "Bei mir bist du schön" was a great encore.

The dangers of a recorder quartet are many: two of the biggest are bad tuning and boring playing. The tuning was incredible here: octaves, fifths, and unisons stunningly clear. And the playing was exciting at all points: these are virtuosos, and they put to rest that old saw that the recorder is only good for playing "Hot Cross Buns."