An exciting trip back in musical time with Les Violons du Roy

Les Violons du Roy
The Morning Call

By Philip A. Metzger

A recorder is really nothing more than a glorified whistle with finger holes, with a tooty little tone of limited dynamic range.

That’s why a virtuoso on the instrument like Maurice Steger, who appeared as soloist with Les Violons du Roy on Tuesday at Lafayette College’s Williams Center, might be considered to have a very unenviable task in making interesting music on one.

It didn’t take much listening to Steger’s playing, however, to think that the task, to the contrary, might be a quite enviable one.

Steger is a short, wiry young man with a somewhat spiked hairdo who tended to move vigorously with his playing, all the while tossing off remarkable combinations of notes with apparent ease.

Not that the program was entirely virtuosic noodling. All of the works performed -- of the five, three were for recorder and orchestra -- were substantive compositions. These included Telemann’s Suite for Alto Recorder and Strings, Sammartini’s Concerto for Soprano Recorder, Strings and Continuo, and a recorder concerto, in the form of a suite of dances, by Geminiani.

The Telemann suite is quite familiar, whether the soloist is playing a recorder or a regular flute, with good opportunities for both technical bravura and melodic elegance.

Sammartini’s concerto was full of little decorative riffs for the soloist, but also quiet tutti where the archlute, normally an unassuming background instruments among the strings, could show itself a bit.

As befits a concluding work, Geminiani’s concerto, which took  its theme from a violin sonata by Corelli, was fully of showy passages for the soloist, who used them to bring the evening to an exciting conclusion.

However, this concert was by no means only about the recorder. Les Violons du Roi, based in Québec City, Canada, is an early music ensemble of considerable abilities. Both the opening work, a concerto grosso by Handel, and a concerto grosso by Geminiani with a theme again from Corelli, were full of excellent playing.

I particularly enjoyed the Geminiani work, in which the composer tossed the theme around the whole ensemble, both as a tutti and as solos for one or more members.

The group, 14 string players, plus archlute and harpsichord, performs with instruments constructed and set up according to pre-19th century practices. The result is a warm, intimate sound which seemed to fit very comfortably into the confines of Lafayette College’s Williams Center concert hall. Even the honey-colored wood paneling serving as a backdrop to the musicians seemed to make a contribution.