Although the recorder is an essential instrument in Renaissance and Baroque chamber or ensemble music, as a solo instrument it is very under-represented in mainstream concert halls; recorder recitals are still few and far between. So it was a fresh experience to hear the Swiss recorder virtuoso Maurice Steger, who has been dubbed the “Paganini of the recorder” in some quarters, in recital with French rising star Jean Rondeau on the harpsichord.

Maurice Steger © Marco Borggreve
Maurice Steger
© Marco Borggreve

There is always a relaxed and casual atmosphere at the lunchtime concerts, especially in the auditorium, but on this occasion the two performers on stage also displayed a casual demeanour. Both were dressed very informally and chose an informal presentation of their music, which was not unwelcome. They entered the stage in a nonchalant manner, almost reluctantly acknowledging the audience (especially Rondeau) and just wanting to get on with the music. When they finished playing a piece, they applauded each other before they took their bows.

Their programme ranged from early to late Baroque Italian composers including Giovanni Battista Fontana, Andrea Falconieri, Pietro Castrucci and Giuseppe Sammartini. Not exactly household names, but collectively they certainly provided the recorder player with a lot of notes! The most outrageously virtuosic passages came in Castrucci’s arrangement of Corelli’s Violin Sonata, Op.5 no. 8, where the added ornamentations in the fast movements were the equivalent to Liszt’s transcriptions of bel canto arias. Steger performed with dazzling agility (not only his fingers but also his rapid articulation), yet without a hint of showing off and with so much of a sense of fun. The technical wizardry in the second movement was such that it brought spontaneous applause, and in the finale he took it so fast that he was really pushed to the limits, adding to the thrill. Sometimes he was not afraid of over-blowing, either.

Steger could dazzle with his virtuosity, but he could equally seduce with his pure, singing tone which carried amazing well in the Wigmore Hall. He opened the concert with Fontana’s Sonata Seconda (published in 1641, originally for violin) on a treble recorder, which began with some beautiful long notes accompanied by arpeggiated chords on the harpsichord. The single-movement sonata moves between slow and fast sections, some in lively dance rhythms, and in the final section the recorder sounded like joyful birdsong.

Steger brought seven different-sized recorders to the stage and in the Falconieri he used different instruments for each piece, from the chirpy descant in Il melo to a tenor in La suave melodia, the most lyrical work in the set. Following a plaintive introduction from the harpsichord, Steger played the suave melody with warmth and lithe phrasing.

Meanwhile, in between the recorder pieces, Rondeau played some solo pieces on the French double-manual harpsichord after Taskin. Bernard Storace’s Ciaccona, based on a familiar ostinato bass, began with a short improvised introduction and he played the variations with increasing flamboyance. His tone is clean and crisp, as demonstrated in the two keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti as well. In the Sonata in D minor, K 213, he showed his introspective side, whereas he was more assertive and buoyant in the Sonata in D major, K 119, which has a fandango feel, Rondeau deliciously bringing out the striking, dissonant chords. He was thoughtful and inventive in his continuo playing too, and was perhaps most playful in the Giuseppe Sammartini sonata, the right hand mirroring the recorder phrases.

As Steger announced the encore – the cantabile movement from Vivaldi’s concerto “Pastorella” concerto – he commented on the acoustics of Wigmore Hall, saying that it “may be the best acoustic for my instrument”. I think the audience certainly agreed. More recorder recitals in the future, please!