Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Courtenay Players Recorder Consort at Glenorchy Wednesday 13 April

The Courtenay Players Recorder Consort
with their extraordinary instruments:
Katie Cowling Tenor, Angela Chapman Bass
Judith Belam Contra Bass, Catherine Palmer-Wills Great Bass

The Octocontra Bass
- now rarely heard
Most of us have played a recorder at some time, usually a school descant - and probably made of plastic. The overuse of this cheap, apparently simple, instrument has led to its image as a childish plaything, little more than a penny whistle.  But the descant, apart from being a serious instrument in itself, represents only the high end of the recorder range, the tip of the iceberg. Defined by their respective lowest notes they increase in size, depth - and price - from the miniscule 'garklein', which starts two octaves above above middle C, all the way down to the contra bass which goes down to the F in the second octave below middle C. (The subcontra and octocontra can take us down another octave, but they are rarely heard.)

The bass instruments create music of quite unexpected grandeur, a far cry from the school descant ensemble. In the right hands they produce a musical effect which is quite unique and magical. A group who really know how to handle recorders - and have a wonderfully Devonian name - are the Courtenay Players. Their traditional wooden instruments are in varied distinctive styles, including the startling modern box-section great and contra bass. Being somewhat more affordable than the ferociously expensive wooden cylinder equivalent, they nevertheless run into the thousands for a quality instrument.

The recorder is a renaissance instrument and the Players enhance the renaissance feel of their concerts with costumes in a renaissance style. However, the real magic starts when they begin to play those wonderful instruments. Despite the consort's renaissance look and sound they are extremely versatile, playing music from the sixteenth century to the twenty first - from Elizabeth to Elizabeth as they say.

"Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon"

Edward Poynter 1890

(Click image for sound)
Without preamble they set the scene with the familiar Baroque gem, "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" from  Handel's oratorio "Solomon". The range only went down to bass for this, and immediately prominent was the tenor playing of their youngest member, Katie Cowling. Not yet twenty, Katie is enrolled at the Royal College of Music and an extremely accomplished musician. Her tenor recorder is a magnificent instrument with (in her hands) a really mellow and beautiful sound.

The style changed to Victorian for the subsequent madrigals by William Beale - arranged for recorders by Eric Chapman. Replacing one of the trebles with a tenor in the between-pieces reshuffle added a little more depth. Next a descant (played to its full potential!) was added for two Elizabethan 'bransles' (French renaissance circle dances which involve 'swaying loosely from side to side' - branlant in French). It was easy to see why these lovely dances were so popular.

The Garklein Recorder
a very specialised instrument
Before the next piece Cath gave us a brief demonstration of the garklein, pulling a face at its high-pitched shriek. Even in the most skilled hands the shrill garklein is only suitable for use in a large ensemble for special effects. This little demonstration, however, was by way of contrast to the wonderful music that was to follow. Angela and Judith brought out the big guns - a great bass and a contra bass - to take the music down into the second octave below middle C. It was not only depth they added. Their warmth and richness change the feel of the music entirely. The renaissance dances that followed - pavan (procession) and galliard (favourite of Elizabeth I) - had a wonderfully stately dignity.

"Ka go sale moso"
(Click image for sound)
From the early sixteenth century we jumped directly to the late twentieth, 1995, and another continent, for Sören Sieg's African Suite No 2, "Pina ya Phala" (Swahili: "Pipe Music") for three recorders. Each beautifully played movement sweetly portrayed an African scene - "Ka go sale moso" (early in the morning), "Noka ee tona" (the great river) and "Borakalano" (the market place).

Sound familiar? Ruth Avis created that 'African dawn' mood on 25 October last year when she played Ian Clarke's "Orange Dawn" (1992) on her flute with pianist James Keefe in the Music Room (see playlist). Although employing a different sound, and a slightly different mood, the  Courtenay Players' "Pina ya Phala" was equally captivating and delightful. It would be wonderful to hear those two pieces side by side!

Where to go from there? Two early twentieth century American classics followed, arranged for recorders by Philip Evry. Gershwin's "Fascinating Rhythm" and Herb Brown's "Singing in the Rain" introduced a light hearted feeling of fun - and familiarity - which sounded well with the stately sound of the recorders.

A brief detour to Ireland for Philip Thorby's "Irish Suite", and to the Netherlands for Paul Leenhouts' Tango "Für Elise", finished off the concert in style. Both were played with the standard combination of descant, treble, tenor and bass but, at the last moment, Cath exchanged her bass for that slightly more moderate bigger sister of the garklein - the sopranino - for a final flourish.

As a parting encore the consort gave us their version of the 'soft shoe shuffle' with Cath abandoning her recorder for a pair of sanding blocks which she employed to very entertaining effect - for the players as well as the audience.

Katie Cowling struggles to concentrate in the face of
Cath Palmer-Wills' 'soft shoe shuffle'
What a wonderful concert that was! Everyone was quite amazed at the impressive music the recorder players were making. The Exeter Bach Society's Director of Music, Nicholas Marshall, who just happened to be in the audience, was very impressed and commented on the very high standard of the playing. Praise indeed, but even to the untrained ear this is clearly music of an outstandingly high calibre.

Want to hear more? The players are available for hire if you are holding an event which could benefit from their music. Also they are very keen to bring the real recorder to a new generation, so teachers who think your pupils could do with something special one day - do get in touch.

The Courtenay Players are also planning a concert of English music for Sunday 19 June at Holy Trinity Church in Drewsteignton called, appropriately, "From Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II".  In addition to the four superb players we heard on Wednesday a fifth regular player, Janet Drake-Law, will also be taking part - along with a little light renaissance style percussion, I hear.

The Courtenay Players Recorder Consort
Holy Trinity Church Drewsteignton
Sunday 19 June evening
From Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II
Judith Belham
Angela Chapman
Katie Cowling
Janet Drake-Law
Catherine Palmer-Wills
(website under construction)

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