Was it in third grade when our school lent every kid a recorder on which to pipe out some music? With no reed, the simple instrument makes it easy to learn to play a melody. Then in fourth grade we got to choose among trumpet, clarinet, and violin, and diversified from there – leaving the recorder in the toy box.
I knew recorders were more than playthings because my parents owned and occasionally played a set of four different-sized instruments that lived in (to me) exotic- and antique-looking velvety boxes. And upon hearing a very young Michala Petrie in concert, in the early 1970s, I discovered real recorder virtuosity.
I don’t think I’d been to another concert centered on the recorder since then, though – until the marvelous German ensemble Boreas Quartett Bremen appeared in New York City on its first North American tour, presented by Music Before 1800. Joined by the eminent recorder maestro Han Tol, the four young musicians transformed Corpus Christi Church into a temple of the blockflöte on Sunday night.
Aptly titled “Il flauto magico,” the program featured a closetful of assorted recorders, most copied from original instruments of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. There were diminutive sopranino recorders, and the standard soprano pipes familiar to all schoolchildren. There were larger instruments too, with lower ranges, all the way up to a huge bass recorder the size of a contrabassoon. A boxy outlier came out for the evening’s one modern piece, the four-movement African-inspired Ixesha by Sören Seig.
The music in the first half spanned the 16th through the 21st centuries, opening with a concerto by Vivaldi that established immediately the ensemble’s great group virtuosity. Played on a range of small recorders, it took on a ghostly sound that hushed the audience: One didn’t want to counterpose so much as a stifled cough or a rustle of paper against the music’s pure-toned delicacy.
Han Tol joined the quartet for a number of the works, including three devotional pieces by the 16th-century organist Christopher Tye, a distinguished composer and the music teacher of King Edward VI. In the Tye piece, five recorders sized from small to huge together suggested the sound of a pipe organ – which, in a sense, they were. The music took unexpected harmonic turns that now and then bordered on the weird and made me want to seek out more of the composer’s music, though sadly not too much of it survives.
Tol was also on hand for a pairing of John Dowland’s beautiful “Lachrimae Antiquae Novae” pavan, more commonly heard on a plucked instrument, and a Galliard by Thomas Simpson that uses the same famous melody. Both revealed rich textures in the consort setting.
A similar pairing consisted of a set of variations on the familiar melody of “Une jeune fillette” by Eusctache de Caurroy, a composer new to me, and “La Monica” by Hans Leo Hassler, in which you can discern the same tune. Three selections from J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue were reverently and superbly played, showing off the ensemble’s amazing synchrony, as did a Concert for 5 Flutes by French composer Joseph Bodin de Boismortier.
On the more playful side were two charming little pieces by Anthony Holborne, and Seig’s Ixesha. Boreas Quartett Bremen premiered the latter recently in Germany. It proved a bubbly, rhythmic delight, starting with the lively, playful “Circle Dance” movement, which incorporates shoe percussion. “Sad Song” rides along lovely motives and gorgeous harmonies, and the swinging “Consolation” put me in mind of the African folk tune that gave us “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Polyrhythms and odd time signatures made “Simple Solution” a marvel of togetherness and transported me to a sophisticated drum circle of the mind.
Boreas Quartett Bremen’s website lists their impending U.S. concerts with Han Tol, Feb. 1 in Boston and Feb. 3 in New Haven. If you’re within reach, go. You’ll never look at the humble recorder the same way again.