12 Interesting Performances by Professional Recorder Ensembles
A Rewarding Instrument
The recorder is a wonderful solo and ensemble instrument. It can provide an enjoyable introduction to music for children and adults and can also be played at an advanced level. Though people may begin their study with the soprano (or descant) instrument and happily stay with it as they explore its repertoire, some players explore other sizes of recorders with different pitches.
Unfortunately, some people have a bad opinion of the recorder due to hearing cheap plastic instruments played by beginners. The cheapest soprano instruments sometimes produce a shrill and harsh sound, especially when played by young children in a group. The recorder—including the soprano version—can actually produce a lovely sound.
The instrument has a rich heritage and is being used in new ways. It offers us far more than some people may realize. In this article I share and discuss twelve of my favourite performances by professional recorder ensembles.
In the video above, Sarah Jeffery discusses her collection of recorders and briefly demonstrates their sounds. Sarah is currently a member of The Royal Wind Music, a large group of recorder players described below.
Types of Recorders
The recorder is classified as a woodwind instrument and a duct flute. It has a whistle mouthpiece or a fipple. The different sizes of the instrument produce their own pitch range. The material that they are made of, their construction, and the player's skill also affect their sound.
Determining how many types of recorders exist is a difficult task. Some manufacturers make huge and/or strange instruments that look nothing like a typical recorder. I don't know how historically accurate these are. This may not matter, depending on one's goals for creating a piece of music. Like music itself, instruments change over time as new features are created.
In order of increasing size and decreasing pitch, major kinds of recorder are the:
- soprano (descant)
- alto (treble)
- great bass
I play the alto recorder, which I prefer to the ones with a higher pitch. The biggest instruments are so large that they need keys in order to be played and a special mouthpiece. In addition, the bell on the bottom of the instrument must rest on a support. A recorder quartet often consists of the most common instruments: the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.
An ensemble is a group of instruments and/or voices. The term "consort" was used in the 16th and 17th century to refer to ensembles. Today a group of recorder players is known as either an ensemble or a consort. In the case of a group of four or five players, it may also be known as a quartet or quintet.
The Quinta Essentia Recorder Quartet
The Quinta Essentia Recorder Quartet is a Brazilian group. In the video below, Paul Leenhouts plays with them. He's a recorder player, a composer, and a conductor. He's also the director of the Early Music Studies Program at the University of North Texas College of Music. He founded The Royal Wind Music ensemble and was its artistic director from 1997 to 2010.
The square, light-coloured recorders in the video may look very strange to someone who hasn't seen them before. According to a comment on the group's YouTube video that was confirmed by one of the quartet's representatives, they are modern Paetzold bass recorders. (Various sizes of these instruments are also shown in other videos in this article.) Paetzold is a recorder manufacturer.
Three Traditional Irish Songs
The first of the three songs played by the group is a traditional Irish reel called "Jenny's Chickens". A reel is a lively folk dance with two or four beats to a bar. I don't know who Jenny was or why her chickens were worthy of a reel in their name, but the jaunty tune sounds very interesting in a recorder ensemble version.
The Garten Mother's Lullaby
"Garten Mother's Lullaby" flows in a slower and gentler manner, as would be expected from its name. Garten is a parish in County Donegal. The lyrics were written by Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil, who was also known as Joseph Campbell. The melody was a traditional one collected by Herbert Hughes. The piece was first published in a 1904 book entitled Songs of Uladh. The lyrics contain references to Irish mythology as well as a gentle address to a baby.
King William's Rambles
"King William's Rambles" is the last piece. It's classified as a traditional Irish jig, which like a reel is a folk dance. A jig has two beats to a bar. Each of these beats is in turn divided into a group of three. The writer in the Bitesize Irish article referenced below suggests that the listener says JIG-ged-y, JIG-ged-y repeatedly as they listen to a tune. If that matches the pulse of the tune, it's a jig. I tried it with the last piece played in the video above and found that it works.
A Rondo and a Gigue
The piece above is played by a recorder quartet. Thanks to modern technology, Orlan Charles plays each of the four parts. He's a Brazilian musician who plays the recorder and other instruments.
The piece is a rondo from Abdelazer, or The Moor's Revenge, which was composed by a Baroque composer named Henry Purcell (1659-1695). The piece was used as incidental music for a play of the same name by Aphra Behn. The play is no longer performed, but Purcell's music is still popular.
In the video below, Orlan Charles uses the same technique as in the first video. He plays all five parts of a gigue of his own composition. The effect is very interesting. It gives a new meaning to the term "recorder ensemble".
The dates of musical eras are somewhat fluid. The Renaissance period is often said to have flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Baroque period is said to have begun in the early seventeenth century.
Diligam Te Domine
Ascanio Trombetti was an Italian composer and wind instrument player who lived from 1544 to 1590. The sound of his "Diligam Te Domine" composition as played in the video below is slow, deep, and sonorous. The title of the piece refers to a line in the Bible. In Latin, Psalm 18 begins with the sentence "Diligam te, Domine, fortitudo mea". The address means "I love you, Lord, my strength". In the psalm, King David expresses his love for the powerful deity that protects him and describes some of this deity's impressive abilities.
The Royal Wind Music performs the piece in the video. The group is based in Amsterdam and plays modern recorders of a Renaissance style. It currently contains thirteen members. Paul Leenhouts is the conductor in the video.
A bransle gay is one name for a French folk dance that first appeared in the sixteenth century. The dance was performed by couples in a line or a circle. The pair held hands or linked their arms and moved together as the dance progressed. The movement involved steps first to one side and then to the other, which made the line of dancers look as though it was swaying.
The rhythm in the piece below is intriguing. It sounds more like people jumping than dancing to me, but it's an enjoyable piece. The piece is linked to the name of Pierre Phalèse, a sixteenth-century printer of music. It's interesting to see and hear people playing renaissance-style recorders while seeing modern traffic in the background of the video.
Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)
The piece below shows the versatility of recorder ensembles. The group is called the Flanders Recorder Quartet, though they've become a quintet for this piece. The piece that they play dates from 1936 and was a popular jazz, swing, or big band piece of the era. It was written by Louis Prima for his band known as the New Orleans Gang.
Some of the recorder players shown in the videos in this article are playing shiny black instruments. This might give the impression that the instruments are made of plastic. They are almost certainly stained wooden ones, however. In a comment on the original YouTube video, the alto recorder player in the video below says that he's playing a wooden instrument.
The Woodpeckers Recorder Quartet
The Woodpeckers Recorder Quartet consists of four women who met while they were students at The Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Sweden. The musicians come from four different countries: Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Ireland. Each of them has a successful solo career. Based on the videos that I've seen, their performances as a quartet are enjoyable.
The women sometimes do more in a performance than simply play their recorders, as can be seen in the videos below. They are entertainers as well as musicians. They give performances specifically for children as well as ones for all ages. According to the information on their website, it seems that the women perform as soloists or with other groups most of the time and come together occasionally as The Woodpecker Quartet.
In the first video below, the women play the third movement of Vivaldi's Recorder Concerto in C major. In the second, they play the Contrapunctus IX from The Art of Fugue by J.S. Bach.
Greensleeves to a Ground
The piece below is a variation of the Greensleeves melody. The original tune may not be recognized by someone listening to the piece or recognized only in some sections. The "ground" refers to a ground bass, or a repeated melody in the bass part.
The piece may sound modern, but it first appeared in a published form in a 1706 collection called The Division Flute. The collection was created by John Walsh. The word "division" in the title means variation in today's terminology. The word "flute" means the recorder.
The Fontanella Recorder Quintet performs the piece. The ensemble is a British group that specializes in historical music, new music, and education. I don't know how similar their piece is to the eighteenth-century Walsh version, but it's enjoyable to listen to.
The video below is also performed by the Fontanella Recorder Quintet. The piece is called "Autumn Leaves" and was arranged by one of the players. I don't know the name of the composer.
The performance shows another style of music that can be created with a group of modern recorders. The instruments are useful in new and experimental music and well as in classical, jazz, folk, and early music. Some groups are exploring the production of unusual sounds by recorders.
A Useful Instrument
The recorder is a lovely instrument. It's a great purchase for someone of any age who has never played a musical instrument before or who is new to reading sheet music. It enables people to play music from different periods of time on their own or in the company of others. It also allows people to compose their own music. If someone has no desire to play a recorder—or if they do—listening to professional recorder players can be very enjoyable.
© 2019 Linda Crampton