Musician of the Month: The Parnassian Ensemble
We formed the group in 1998 but knew each other from other playing work before that. Sophie and Helen have played recorders together since childhood so it was a natural progression to continue that into their professional playing careers. Chamber music really depends on absolute trust between the players, along with the right mix of personalities to enable the music to flow freely. It’s a wonderful feeling when four players come together as one unit, with the same aims and musical approach.
What is your favourite piece or style to perform as a group?
Of course, we love to play the baroque period’s greatest composers but we’ve made a speciality of reviving music of the English 18th century. It’s exciting bringing back to life works that have been unjustly forgotten or neglected. Our first disc ‘A Noble Entertainment – Music from Queen Anne’s London’ (Avie Records AV2094) was a direct result of this interest. We also enjoy sprinkling programmes with much later or contemporary works. The ‘Flourishes and Dances’ by Steve Marshall that we will be premiering at the Handel House Museum is currently one of our favourites.
How can you best describe your interpretation of Handel’s music as an ensemble?
As you would expect from a period ensemble, we aim to use historically informed performance practice to recreate as closely as possible what Handel may have expected to hear. We know that Handel had affection for the recorder as he wrote several works that use it. To us, the music seems fresh and warm, so that’s what we try to convey.
Why do you think 18th century recorder music is not as well-known as it should be?
There are several reasons for this. The, now thankfully diminishing, image of the recorder as a starter or somehow inferior, school instrument; the erroneous view that it’s an easy instrument and the fact that it’s an instrument that’s easy to play badly have not helped! The recorder was extremely popular in the 18th century but as its heyday passed and it fell out of fashion, by the 19th century it was largely forgotten, along with its repertoire. This means there isn’t the same continuous tradition that, say, a string player, has access to. Thankfully, since the Early Music revival movement that started at the beginning of the 20th century, recorder players have had much greater access to the wealth of 18th century repertoire that exists in all sorts of publications. Another reason might be that 18th century music can often look quite plain or empty on the page. In the past, this has led some to the mistaken assumption that the music is ‘easy’ or not as technically challenging as modern repertoire. For others, the task of not knowing exactly how to go about performing the music has also been a barrier. Unless the player possesses knowledge of historical playing conventions, interpreting the music is much harder than coming from the usual manner of performing, whereby the musician is trained to play exactly what is notated, without deviation. The Parnassian Ensemble loves this repertoire and aims to introduce it to as many people as possible.
What do you find special about performing in Handel’s Rehearsal and Performance Room?
We always enjoy playing at the Handel House Museum. It’s thrilling to be in the very space where Handel lived and worked, and where so much great music took shape. Although this could be daunting, it is, in fact, a very friendly, intimate and happy place. We hope Handel would approve!