Too Many Records

International Record Review, May 2009

Piers Adams talks about his record collection

Starting a record label may seem like a crazy thing to do in our credit-crunched times.   What on earth would drive a group of musicians to continue to produce and market recordings – at their own expense – when currencies are crashing and people are battening down their hatches and saving every penny?   Aren’t there too many records already?

Maybe the answer lies in the relentless quest of the musician to rise above the material in search of the inspirational; maybe it comes from a canny recognition that in times of crisis music and entertainment become ever more important… or OK, maybe it’s pure vanity.   Whatever, our decision to start Red Priest Recordings took on an unstoppable momentum during the past couple of years, fuelled by some amusingly one-sided deal offers from major labels, and by our continuing desire to, well, make records.

When I look back at my own path I am struck by how much I have been influenced and inspired by the records I’ve heard – in fact I’m sure it’s impossible for musicians to listen to music entirely objectively, without reference to their own work. Back in 1972 my 8-year-old self had its first inkling of this process when, having virtually worn out the groove in my first single – a catchy song called ‘Beautiful Sunday’, by one-hit-wonder Daniel Boone – I felt compelled to sing it unaccompanied to my entire school, much to the embarrassment of my older and trendier brother.   The following year my musical tastes had progressed to a love-affair with glam-rock giants The Sweet, and my first album purchase (the excellent ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’) inspired me to construct a drum-kit out of biscuit tins and ice-cream tubs, nailed onto a table, which I was reluctantly permitted to bring along to a school assembly one day so that I could drum along to the hymn.   I am convinced to this day that the headmistress deliberately set too slow a tempo, and my career as a drummer ended as soon as it began.   The damage to my horrified brother’s street-cred was limited only by the relatively small size of our village school.

In search of a new medium of musical expression I was fortunate to encounter a keen disciple of David Munrow in my secondary school’s head of music – who clearly saw something unusual in my virtuoso rendition of London’s Burning, and encouraged me to join the school early music group. Thus my first classical LP was a Munrow recording of renaissance dances, and my destiny was set.   From there I rapidly progressed to the recordings of Frans Brüggen, who was at the height of his recorder-playing powers; I became mesmerised by his extraordinarily beautiful, charismatic sound, and was introduced to a wealth of fantastic recorder concertos and sonatas, which I became determined to track down and learn to play. Every school holiday I would spend a happy day trudging alone around the music and record shops in London whilst my brother went to watch Arsenal play – my regular journey started in Cramer’s near Trafalgar Square and reached its climax in the classical music basement of HMV at Bond Street – and I would return home with armfuls of records and sheet music. My new-found obsession gave my brother the chance for ultimate revenge as he cheerfully announced from behind his newspaper one day that he had just read that Frans Brüggen had been ‘eaten by wolves’.

I would be lying if I said that I had a balanced musical education, and for most of my school years I only bought records if they featured a recorder – at least until hormones prompted me temporarily to abandon nerd-hood in favour of some slightly more contemporary grooves (new-romantic and ska at that time). I became a connoisseur of the ‘blockflöte scene’ – most of the best records seemed to be German imports, Telefunken’s catalogue featuring large – with Brüggen, Quadro Hotteterre and a little later, Michala Petri forming the basis of my collection. Although I had recorder lessons spasmodically through my school and university years it was these records which were my most constant and inspiring teachers.   As my own career developed my interest in the recordings of other recorder players has inevitably shifted to a largely professional one, although certain discs stand out as truly inspirational along the way – amongst them, Marijke Miessen’s transcriptions of Telemann violin sonatas, Pedro Memelsdorf’s arrangements of English masque music (‘Delight in Disorder’), Walter van Hauwe’s ventures into modernism in ‘Ladder of Escape’ and – if you want to sample a real recorder-players’ curiosity – Laurens Tan’s extraordinary disc of bass recorder improvisations, entitled, surprisingly, ‘Bass Recorder’.

It was during the recording boom years of the 1980s that the early music scene split into two distinct camps – those who sought to distil the fruits of research into perfect historical reproductions for the new CD generation and those who preferred to keep alive the untamed spirit of adventure which had spawned the movement in the first place, wherever that might take them. I quickly realised my allegiances lay with the latter camp and I began to seek out any recordings that probed the boundaries of baroque performance practise.   Nicholas Harnoncourt’s ground-breaking 1977 recording of the Four Seasons had paved the way for artists such as Reinhard Goebel and his Musica Antiqua Cologne, who took baroque rhetoric to new heights, culminating in a rip-roaring set of Bach’s Brandenburgs (unsurpassed today in my opinion).   More recently the English violinist Andrew Manze has brought a very personal gypsy flair to the scene, most notably in his recordings of Pandolfi Mealli’s sonatas. But it was the emergence of the Italian ensemble, Il Giardino Armonico, which turned the baroque performance world on its head: a thrillingly edgy sound, recorded rock-studio-style, with wild interpretations of Vivaldi (hear, for instance, their disc of the Op.10 concertos or ‘La Follia’) – which became the true inspiration for the formation of Red Priest.

Two other early music curiosities are worthy of mention here: the maverick pianist Glen Gould, so sublime in his Bach recordings, playing harpsichord on a rare CBS recording of Handel Suites, with a power and brilliance today’s ‘authentic’ players rarely attain; and ‘Songs of Love and Death’, a now unobtainable Factory Records recording by the vocal ensemble Red Byrd – launched with a memorable South Bank concert – in which lutenists play electric guitars in Monteverdi, and rock musicians compose for 17th century consort.

Although I enjoy some mainstream classics today – the pianism of Lipatti and Hough, a smattering of symphonic works – it is the fringes of music which continue to inspire me and feed my own recording work.   And the discs which find their way into my CD player are more often ‘world’ than ‘classical’ – an amazing live concert (San Francisco, 1980) by guitarists Paco de Lucia, Al di Meola and John McLaughlin; McLaughlin with Zakir Hussein, Jan Garbarek and others in the mesmerising Indian-crossover disc ‘Making Music’; and in particular, two discs by the little-known Russian gypsy trio Talisman, who cross into every genre imaginable with consummate musicianship. When I hear these artists I realise just how much classical musicians can learn about the sheer joy of musical freedom and creativity.   Now that’s a good reason to keep making records.