The recorder – mainly the descant – is responsible for turning generations of school children off making music from a very early age. A featureless instrument in many ways, its flat tone conjures out-of-tune ensembles parping away amongst the pencil shavings in a thousand classrooms.
But don’t discount the recorder yet. Its history from the Middle Ages is one of huge popularity, kingly enthusiasm (Henry VIII daily enjoyed ‘plaieing at the recorders’) and even, during the Renaissance, the recorder’s ability to incite sexual lusts and erotic abandon are all a long way from the musty classrooms of the Twentieth Century.
And definitely don’t write off the recorder until you have heard Maurice Steger coax sounds out of this simple wooden whistle that defy belief.
A true virtuoso in that his artistic personality overcomes the instrument, making it bend to his musical will, Switzerland’s Steger is also a brilliant ambassador for the humble instrument – he brings such energy to the performance that you are won over on every level.
Combine Steger’s spark with Sydney’s Brandenburg Orchestra under the crackling energy of director Paul Dyer and you have fireworks. The opening night performance at Sydney’s City Recital Hall had musical crackers, sparklers and Roman candles to spare.
From the Allegro of Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Major (for ‘little flute’), Steger made us all sit up with his complete command of the recorder, and his driving momentum, all tempered with human-scale humour and joy. This concerto, played on soprano recorder, is a brain-cracking virtuoso showcase, yet Steger navigated its twists, turns and hyper-fleet passages with ease, trading licks with the ensemble and seemingly playing across every possibility of the recorder. This was shredding, and he did it all with a smile on his face.
The recorder has a flute-like tone, and yet because of its mechanics it has far less expressive tools than its transverse, metal cousin. Yet also, because of its limitations, it has some distance between the individual notes. On a legato passage, the notes are quite separate, like pearls on a necklace – which is quite a wonderful effect, hugely difficult at speed but one which Maurice Steger excelled at.
Of course, the ensemble is the unsung hero of the instrumental concerto, and the Brandenburg not only kept pace with Steger but seemingly pushed him to outdo himself. In music, energy begets energy and this was a twinned propulsion that thrilled.
For the third item on the night, Steger left the Brandenburg to present Telemann’s Concerto for Three Trumpets in D major. It was Maurice Steger’s night, but this was a highlight. A remarkable selection – Paul Dyer has yet to get it wrong – it showed the great strengths of this rare Australian ensemble yet again. The Adagio hushed the world and only when it finished could we let our breath out again.
Later in the program, the ABO was pared down to a tiny chamber group for Rittler’s ‘Ciaccona à 7’. Growing from a simple repeated guitar motif, its minimalist progress and pared-away harmony had me convinced it was a 20th Century work. But no, the Ciaccona was from 1678. It ended with, one-by-one, the musicians leaving the stage, which gradually darkened to black – a little piece of theatre, greatly effective and affecting.
Steger returned for the final work, Germiniani’s ‘Concerto No. 10 in F major’ – once again, an eye-popping virtuoso workout, especially the last movement which had Steger stomping his foot as if kicking the ABO along to faster and faster tempo. Yet this steed needed no prodding; it was already whipping through the wind in unbridled joy.
To cool us off, we were treated to a seemingly impromptu and unrehearsed ‘La Pastorella’, the slow movement from a Vivaldi chamber concerto. Apart from being as transporting as any of the light speed shred-fests previous to it, this measured and lovely piece served to remind us that despite Steger’s bravura showmanship, his voice comes from somewhere deep, deep inside the music. The place where the true virtuoso resides.
Maurice Steger, Recorder Revolutionary is at the City Recital Hall Angel Place from March 2-5. For details visit the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra website.