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He’s been called a demonic wizard, a Paganini even, yet for many of us there’s no instrument less mysterious than the humble recorder. Like so many of us, the Swiss virtuoso Maurice Steger started out age six before giving it up in disgust. “I had no success,” he laments with a look of mock sadness as we catch up over lunch. It’s the morning after the night before, and by all accounts yesterday he brought the house down with a typically dazzling display in his opening concert with Paul Dyer and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.
It took a few years of flirting with other instruments before Steger decided to embrace the recorder once more. “It took me a long time,” he admits. “I was absolutely not a wonder child or whatever. It took me very long, but there was a specific moment when I was 12 or 13 when I realised how wonderful it is and from that moment on it was clear to me, that's my instrument.”
Born in 1971 in Winterthur, Switzerland, Steger has a ready smile and a cheeky flamboyance combined with an almost stereotypical Swiss neatness of appearance, though he claims to find much about his homeland over-priced and boringly regimented. Oozing charm and good manners, he’s clearly a born collaborator with a roll call of orchestras – Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Musica Antiqua Köln, The English Concert, Europa Galante – that reads like a who’s who of the early music scene. He has performed with singers from Thomas Quasthoff to Cecilia Bartoli, instrumentalists like Hilary Hahn and Sol Gabetta and played for maestri like Fabio Biondi and Diego Fasolis.
For many of us, images of kids sitting in classrooms playing endless rounds of London’s Burning suggest the recorder is one of the easier instruments to start out on, but a couple of seconds into a Steger recital and it’s obvious that it is a darn sight more sophisticated than that. And a quick listen to one of his superbly crafted discs on Harmonia Mundi, should be enough to convince you that few can play as cleanly and with such breath-taking technical facility. “Maybe I have a specific technique for playing this kind of music really well,” he explains. “I have to say I'm very gifted and I'm very thankful for this. I train, but not hours a day because I want my technique to be kind of... natural. I think this is so important. I want to be always organic. The things we are doing on the instrument they have to be normal.”
That’s not to say that Steger hasn’t had to work hard. “It's an incredibly difficult instrument to play because everything is missing compared to other wind instruments,” he admits. “We don’t have the keys for example, so all the fingerings we have to do just with the fingers. We have nothing like reeds, so the intonation system is difficult. It's so hard to produce a good sound – we have absolutely no help from the instrument. But this is what I like. It sounds really different from player to player and you have to fight in a particular way to let your music speak and sing. The challenge is to create a wonderful, beautiful, colourful sound and this feeling is paired with my deep love for the instrument.”
Any definition of what constitutes the term “recorder” will always be a little vague – the first such instruments clearly evolved thousands of years ago – the recorder in the modern sense came into use in Medieval times. By the end of the Renaissance, recorder consorts were a popular alternative to the viol with families who would sit down and play en masse. The soloistic recorder as we think of it today came in with the early Baroque, but after a high-water period of around 150 years, it almost disappeared from history. “The new taste of the Classical period began with the Bach sons. The recorder was just not in fashion any more,” Steger explains. “Those composers wanted to make very cloudy things, with wonderful pointed high notes, and the recorder was too direct, too clear, too loud, and not able to blend with other instruments so nicely.”
After what Steger refers to as “a long sleep”, the recorder started its remarkable come back thanks to Arnold Dolmetsch, the French-born instrument maker who spent most of his working life in England, first with a drive to rebuild ancient recorders, and then with an interest in building new recorders for the 20th century. “England was always very strong as a recorder country,” says Steger, explaining that our ‘modern’ idea of the instrument gradually emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. “This use of the recorder as a pedagogical instrument, this kind of house music, this use of the recorder as a social instrument. This is all new from this time.”
Steger is one of a new breed of recordists who have ridden the groundswell in historically informed performance and over the last 10 years he has delighted listeners with a string of acclaimed recordings including benchmark CDs of the Vivaldi and Telemann concertos and a delicious disc of solo sonatas by Sammartini. His beautiful themed albums – Venezia 1625, Mr. Corelli in London (arrangements of Corelli sonatas by his contemporaries), and Una Follia di Napoli – reveal a keen and questing musical intellect.
With about 70 recorders at his disposal, ranging from early to modern models, from material to material, and from the very big to the very small, there’s not much he doesn’t know about the range of sounds available. “The biggest is a bit over two metres. I don't own it because it's not interesting to play,” he explains as he comically imitates its wet, windy sound. The smallest he describes as being about two-thirds the size of one of the forks on the table in front of us. He no longer owns very old instruments, explaining that the idea of playing the equivalent of a Stradivarius doesn’t appeal. “I'm a player, I don't want to be a collector, and the new instruments based on historical models are just working better. With old recorders, the intonation is a problem with humidity from both inside and outside. They are beautiful to watch and they are interesting to figure out what the recorder was, but for today’s players unfortunately they are not the best.”
Moving the conversation on to the great composers of the early and high Baroque, Steger admits to being a fan of violin virtuoso Marco Uccellini (“a fantastic composer”), whose work he has adapted for the recorder in the past. “There’s no music for recorder by Claudio Monteverdi, of course, but I love his work very much. Later on I love Antonio Vivaldi, who's a very good composer. Important for the recorder as well is Georg Philipp Telemann. And of course I love Bach very much. But then we have other composers who are not so famous but wrote very good music. For example, Hasse I like very much, and Domenico Sarro is a fantastic composer.”
With his dexterity and incredible technical facility, the world is currently Maurice Steger’s oyster. His interests for the future, however, are less to do with pushing the limits of the recorder, but more holistically to do with exploring the historical and social aspects of the instrument. “I find it more interesting to find new parameters for this old idea of the recorder,” he explains. “How can we play ancient recorders in big rooms, in new acoustics, in new halls, so that they sound like they could have sounded in an old palazzo. There are always reasons why instruments develop into new kinds of instruments – like the clarinet into the saxophone, or the harpsichord not into the piano. The recorder and the gamba turned into nothing and I accept the historical reasons for that. So I’m a hardliner for playing ancient music in a good, historic way. The instrument itself always reveals new secrets and raises new questions, and for me this is what is the most interesting.”
Maurice Steger appears with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra until March 5