In recent years, the Swiss recorder virtuoso Maurice Steger has established himself not only as one of the world’s foremost recorder players, but as a conductor of considerable merit. On Friday evening, when Montreal remained embedded in snow, Steger and the ensemble Les Violons du Roy let us believe in the hope and optimism that spring brings. It was not only that the program was uplifting, and for the most part joyous, but was primarily the result of Steger’s music-making.

Maurice Steger © Marco Borggreve
Maurice Steger
© Marco Borggreve

To call his approach enthusiastic is to do both the man and the expression a disservice. From the moment he surged onto the stage, one was engaged. For Steger, there appears to be an organic joy in the living of music, in its performance, its communality, in its ability to bring together and transform. There was a communication with the audience and his musicians that was not only effective, but deeply touching on a purely human, yet spiritually fulfilling, level.

The concert was aptly entitled A virtuoso in Naples and featured works from the high Baroque period by Neapolitan composers. The evening confirmed the technical sophistication of the Neapoiltan compositional school and helped explain why, even at the time of Rossini, Neapolitan orchestras were so highly regarded.

Steger seeks to perform this music in prevailing performing practice style but he also seeks to evoke performance traditions and conventions of the epoch such as the widely-held practice of inserting works between movements or sections of other works. And so the concert began with the two first sections of Leonardo Vinci’s overture to the opera Elpidia, but before the concluding Allegro, we tasted the delights of Leonardo Leo’s Concerto for for four violins in D major. The integration of the concerto was not only seamless, but musically coherent and dramatically convincing. Steger conducted with a white-hot intensity and generosity, with every breath or rest containing the energy of the coming phrase. He leaned into the violin section, urging them, willing them into even more expressive playing. Les Violons du Roy responded with brio. String articulation was never dry or detached but was based, even in Allegro sections, on an sculptured and expressive legato.

Domenico Sarro’s Recorder Concerto in A major recorder concerto gave us the first chance to hear Steger as a soloist. The dramatic opening Largo (staccato e dolce) revealed his physically compelling attitude as soloist. There is nothing remotely conventional in his approach. He vibrates to every musical phrase in a viscerally physical way. One only has to look at his face to realise that it reflects the work’s every dramatic or lyrical turn. His playing was somewhat uneven here, pitch was occasionally defective and articulation in the Allegro not ideal, but the sense of musical commitment was all-enveloping. Steger appeared perfectly at ease with the occasional sacrificing of perfection for the required expressivity. The transition from the expansive Larghetto into the concluding Spiritoso was particularly noteworty, Steger looking and listening with obvious pleasure at Sylvain Bergeron (baroque guitar and archlute) setting a wonderful ambiance and tempo for the movement, before taking up the torch and blazing a blistering path to the end.

After a rhythmically resplendent and musically contrasted interpretation of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Concerto Grosso in F major, Steger returned as soloist in Nicola Fiorenza’s stunning Recorder Concerto in A minor. The tonal colour and limpid line of the opening Grave could have melted the coldest of hearts, while in the theatrical Largo e staccato, he seemed inhabited by the spirit of Handel’s mad Orlando, such was his histrionic demeanour. His playing, especially in rapid and virtuoso passages, may not appear conventional, but it is never less than musically effective and his joy in the music contagious.

After the interval, Steger and a basso continuo of four musicians offered a captivating performance of Alessandro Scarlatti’s strangely beautiful Variations on “La Follia” in which Steger convinced one and all that he is indeed a modern Pied Piper of Hamelin. Les Violons du Roy, individually and collectively, demonstrated once more their technical mastery in a glowing performance of Domenico Scarlatti’s Sinfonia no. 1 in A major in which Steger conceived the Presto sections at breakneck, but exhilarating, pace.

The concert ended with a near-flawless performance of Leo’s Concerto for flute, strings and basso continuo in G major, which displayed Steger’s technical brilliance and expressive palette, both defying credulity. As the audience exploded into applause at the conclusion of the final Allegro, Steger, with a radiant smile, turned to face an equally appreciative ensemble. After acknowledging every single member of Les Violons du Roy and a few words of thanks, soloist, conductor and ensemble offered Sarro’s evocative Tarantella as a final reinvigorating souvenir of an evening to treasure.