Recorder Consorts

The recorder has long had an association with the Early Music Movement, and remains one of the most popular instruments for amateur performers. There is ample Baroque repertory specifically for the instrument, written up to the point at which it was replaced by the side-blown flute in the standard orchestra. Of course, for many of us, a first exposure to the recorder came in primary music classes, and it can be difficult to shake that association. The recorder also has a lesser historical pedigree for abstract music, with its early practitioners drawn from the lower classes. Although its ancestors do appear in iconography from medieval times, it did not have the status of the lute or the vielle, and indeed there is no specific discussion of performance technique until the publications of the sixteenth century. One might trace this to Pythagoras' use of the monochord, and on to the somewhat more complicated geometric relationships of three-dimensional vibrating bodies. It is clear, however, that the recorder was designed primarily to increase the richness of tone available from the early flutes. These were high-pitched instruments until the mid-fifteenth century, when entire matched families appear, and those are the "consorts" by which to orient the present discussion.

One notable instrumental trend of the Renaissance was the idea of a full consort, of instruments of the same type in an array of pitch classes by which to form an entire ensemble. The consort of viols was clearly the preeminent such combination, judging by the frequency with which it appears on title pages. Indeed, this ensemble has its obvious successor (even if the historical path is less clear) in the modern string quartet, while the recorder consort was not really succeeded by a similar ensemble. The modern wind quintet is not nearly so well established, and does not use the same homogenous timbre of a Renaissance consort or string quartet. In many ways, this lack of competing forces is what makes the rebirth of the recorder consort that much more compelling. Although I am oriented more toward strings and tend to think in those terms, the viol consort as a historical ensemble does differ only by a matter of degree, and indeed its early repertory is quite serviceable on modern strings. Other motivations for an awakening interest in the recorder are the relative closeness in sound to the voice and the naturalness of vocal-style articulation, as well as incidental factors such as the way a recorder consort can sound like an organ with more strongly nuanced individual lines. My remarks are situated within the context of someone accepting the recorder at a late date, and might prove more interesting to those in similar positions of skepticism.

The immediate stimulus for the present discussion is the recent recording by the distinguished recorder trio, Sour Cream. Their Passion of Reason program makes a strong case for the recorder in a variety of repertory, while the integrity of the recital as a whole makes it a notable achievement. What Sour Cream does most dramatically is to wed the recorder to the idea of "abstract music," including a discussion of the categories of musical thought used in the Middle Ages. The program is identified correctly & emphatically with musicalis scientia, while the ahistorical position of the recorder in so many individual pieces is brushed aside casually in a brilliant rhetorical coup. Although individual interpretation without authenticity as a phantom "goal" hardly needs justification as an artistic endeavor, what Kees Boeke presents in the curiously discursive liner notes is a strong argument by association, and perhaps a sort of revision to how the recorder should have been employed in the medieval era. One cannot argue with the result, as the pieces are rendered convincingly to the point that one is almost left believing they were conceived for the recorder consort in the first place.

The program conveys a keen sense of timing, with cyclical relationships perhaps underscoring the proposed historical modifications noted above. The idea is portrayed immediately as Machaut's palindromic rondeau arises gradually from silence and then fades away, while it comes to the fore again near the end when Bach's modulations are presented enigmatically as a small slice of an infinite process. Besides the great works of Machaut, the rendition is at its most inauthentically idiomatic in the surreal works of the Ars Subtilior repertory. The recorder trio seems born to this music, and indeed another recital has appeared recently. From there the program moves on to some highlights of the English consort repertory, but again it is the vocal pieces which steal the show as the elaborate Baldwin MS Kyries are given especially compelling interpretations. The latter strength reflects both the recorder's vocal quality as well as the natural provenance of the early consort pieces in vocal music. The three pieces with voice provide an orientation for the program, and some evocative lyrics, but are not the features here. Finally, the proto-instrumental works of Brumel & Isaac are given energetic readings, while Janequin brings virtuosity briefly to the fore almost as a wink toward another mode of thought. The scope of the program as a whole is impressive, while the resulting flights of imagination are both subtle and dramatic in accumulation.

Of course the recorder appears in a wide range of contexts today. Using a variety of instruments became dominant in the 17th century, first in what the English called "broken consorts," and then in clearly distinguished functional parts with the rise of continuo. This mixture is a Baroque idea, and the recorder often has a prominent part in such ensembles. I tend to prefer interpretations with full consorts, when possible, as the more abstract ensemble work can enhance contrapuntal ideas in music which has them. Increases in individual recorder technique have also elicited solo recitals featuring pieces from the medieval to the modern eras. The existence of a modern repertory is obviously a natural outgrowth of renewed interest in the past few decades, and these new works are representative of contemporary music in their stylistic variety. It is possible that intimate chamber compositions for recorder ensemble will challenge those for string quartet in the coming decades, and I am growing more receptive to the idea.

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Todd M. McComb