On Thursday, April 28, the Flanders Recorder Quartet performed an array of Baroque pieces at the American Academy of Arts & Letters (156th Street, between Broadway and Riverside Drive) in a program titled “Reclaiming Bach for the Recorder,” presented by Miller Theatre.
Among the composers whose works were featured were Bach, Vivaldi, and Telemann, and among the instruments were recorders in different ranges, from the sopranino to the tenor to the “man-high” contrabass in F.
Recorders are curious instruments—to most people, they represent a dreaded contraption they were forced to play in middle school band. Some musicians see them as a pseudo-woodwind of sorts, not nearly as prominent in the Baroque literature as the oboe or bassoon.
But as this concert demonstrated, recorders are flexible instruments that “can offer a certain charm and transparency—each voice securing a degree of individuality and independence,” in the words of one of the quartet members, Tom Beets. Through the rearrangement of an organ piece, a concerto grosso for violin, and a choral motet for recorders instead, the audience was able to hear these pieces in a new light.
During Bach’s “Fugue in G,” the performers focused on their independent lines, weaving in and out of each others’ 16th note runs, but managed to retain the underlying pulse and create a sense of synergy.
In the “Art of Fugue,” the timbres of the instruments blended enough at times to sound something like a water organ, with slightly muffled yet round and cushioned tones. Yet, at other times, the timbres of the individually ranged instruments differed enough to distinguish the lines in a way that would be impossible on an organ. The opposite effects are neither good nor bad: They simply demonstrate how arrangement endows the music with new artistic interpretation.
Some period performance diehards might take issue with the practice of arranging Baroque pieces for nontraditional instruments. After all, Bach hardly wrote for recorder, and recorder quartets are rare in the repertoire. But it is also part of the spirit and practice of Baroque music to leave instrumentation—along with other liberties since lost, such as improvisation and ornamentation—open to the performer. Bach’s keyboard pieces were played on harpsichord and organ, and his concertos regularly interchange violin for oboe and cello for bassoon. The question becomes where to draw the line between acceptable instrumental substitutions and historically inaccurate ones.
This performance is what a Baroque performance could, but not necessarily should, look like, in all aspects of presentation: the aristocratic setting, the balance between displayed emotion and cold-hearted technique, and a healthy dose of ornamentation. But it is possible to see the same performance in someone’s living room being just as legitimate.