Perth Festival

Red Priest

St John’s Kirk


Keith Bruce

four stars

IT was three-quarters of the way through an eclectic, and eccentric, performance before we heard anything by the composer that gives Piers Adams’s baroque quartet its name, but the G minor “La Notte” concerto by Antonio Vivaldi (nicknamed The Red Priest on account of his hair colour) was a particular choice.

As Adams explained, it was a work included in his group’s first concert, back in 1997. A quarter of a century later, Red Priest have their mojo back, post-pandemic. With the return of founding violinist Julia Bishop, it’s a little like Graham Coxon re-joining Damon Albarn’s Blur.

The comparison is not completely facile, because Red Priest behave, and interact with the audience, more like a rock group than a baroque ensemble. Their cavalier way with the canon, cheerfully re-purposing work composed for other instruments, marrying stray movements of pieces to each other, and skewing tempi for dramatic effect, would doubtless incense the more zealous members of the historically-informed performance brigade. It’s enormous fun though, and more gently educational.

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New harpsichordist David Wright, in for the late Julian Rhodes, was the only person on stage using music, and Adams and Bishop roamed the splendid acoustic of Perth’s St John’s Kirk with enthusiasm. These musicians wear their virtuosity lightly, but on everything from bass to sopranino instrument, Adams was astonishing, with an equally impressive range of embouchure technique.

For an entirely acoustic group, Red Priest also contrive to make a fair amount of noise, and an ensemble balance that is much cleverer than their casual approach suggests. Cellist Angela East, who had a solo Bach feature that was an original take on one of the evening’s best known tunes, is a one-woman rhythm section, providing both bass line and percussion as and when required.

Johann Sebastian had the most music in this programme, which was mostly German and Italian, with single visits to England, Spain, and the court of Louis XIV, some of it doubtless never heard together in its day, and mixing the familiar with pieces fresh to modern ears. Of the better known works, Handel’s E major Suite and Variations achieved escaped velocity: this Blacksmith was not just Harmonious but also in a tearing hurry to get to the pub!