Beware the Spider!

Beware the Spider!

Fatima Lahham attended recorder quartet Palisander's album launch at St John's Smith Square, and reviews their first album Beware the Spider!


The floor is cold at St John’s Smith Square and the atmosphere is close with the audience’s collective expectancy. We’re waiting for the members of recorder quartet Palisander to animate the silent recorders onstage, and reading Miriam Nerval’s programme notes is only serving to heighten my anticipation.

7.30pm comes suddenly, the lights are dimmed, breaths caught, talking silenced, all eyes fixed. From the right of the stage the sound of three blended recorders wafts like ominous incense, and with no visual distractions, we start slowly to inhabit the gentle soundscape of sound shapes: articulated clicks between notes, breaths snatched that remind us of the unseen musicians. In fact, I was concentrating so hard on these details in Athanasius Kircher’s Antidotum that it took me a few moments to notice that Miriam Nerval was walking onstage from the left hand side, ready to deliver a spoken introduction both to their programme and the concept behind their new album:

“Beware the spider’s

Most venomous bite.

Terror awaits you

Once you’re in his sight.

Some become angry

Others grow sick,

Some have delusions,

The symptoms come quick,

Whatever the poison,

Once in your veins

Dance and dance quickly!

To see a new day…”

As explained, Tarantism was a disorder caused by a tarantula’s bite and characterised by a possessed desire to dance. It seems to have been most commonly observed in Italy in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, a geographical and historical area from where Palisander selected all of the music on the CD and most of the repertoire in the concert. Interestingly, excessive dancing seems to have been both the main symptom as well as the cure for such a venomous bite, leaving us with a legacy of ‘tarantella’ dances, written as musical cures for those afflicted.

Although women are recorded as being the most common victims of tarantism, they were also suspected of fabricating the spider’s bite so that they would be able to indulge in a type of licentious dancing otherwise prohibited to those of good conduct. Stuck between a stereotype and a hard place, women were often perceived as both ‘weak’ enough to fall prey to tarantism and ‘deceptive’ enough to fake its symptoms. In light of this historical context, I enjoyed listening to the four women of Palisander taking charge of the narrative with their own musical voices, especially in their choice to programme the unusual madrigal Il vostro dipartir  by Maddalena Casulana, the first woman to have her music printed and published in the Western hemisphere.

With such an intriguing premise for a recording project, I was really excited to listen to the CD when I returned home, and was not disappointed. Refreshingly short in length, it opens with the familiar and fleetly rendered La Lusignuola by Tarquinio Merula, before moving on to two pieces by Anthony Holborne: The Night Watch and The Image of Melancholy, to which Toby Carr contributes a sensitive accompaniment on theorbo.

Vivaldi’s 'Nightmare' Concerto whisks us into another world entirely. Miriam Nerval describes her own arrangement of the La Notte concerto as “a modern recorder player’s take on the original”, and both on stage and on the CD this piece takes on a whole new dimension. At times creepy, comical, grotesque, frantic and fantastic, the concerto romps through and enacts a nightmarish exaggeration of events and sights that seem quite ordinary by day – exploiting features like clipped articulations, slides, swoops, glissandi, and the unlikely yet poised solo on the ponderous contrabass. I loved it.

All the Tarantella dances on the disc are the quartet's own arrangements from basic melodies or bass lines, sometimes with the addition of baroque guitar and percussion played respectively by Toby Carr and Ruairi Glasheen with foot-tapping panache and a shredding spirit.  For me these dances were the highlight of the recording – Palisander really seemed to claim these dances for their own, playing with a gutsy sense of folk music and plenty of imagination. You can watch them here performing both music and dance for one of their tarantellas.

Also on the disc are some arrangements of vocal music by William Byrd, Tiburtio Massaino, and Luzzascho Luzzaschi as well as two unusual pieces by Robert Johnson and Athanasius Kircher, making up a varied and lively programme. My only regret was that there were no more Tarantellas, and that Maddalena Casulana's Il vostro dipartir, played in the concert, did not make it onto the CD!

As a recorder player myself I also enjoyed Palisander’s approach to presenting the instrument, finding a good balance between exciting playing and a relaxed and confident stage manner. They are Young Artists at St John’s Smith Square this year, and the way they inhabited the stage and invited the audience to ask questions and examine the instruments really suggested that they (rightfully) felt at home there.  

I would certainly urge readers to buy this disc and to support Palisander; click here to order a CD, or go along to their next concert at SJSS on April 2nd 2017 to see them in person.


Palisander was described as ‘outstanding’ and ‘thrilling’, in reviews of the quartet’s performance at Brighton Early Music Festival, last autumn. The group is delighted to have been selected for the prestigious St John's Smith Square Young Artists' Scheme 2016-2017. Last year, Palisander was selected for the Brighton Early Music Festival’s ‘Early Music Live!’ scheme. The quartet prides itself on presenting imaginative, historical programmes with a wide range of repertoire, often performing on recorders up to 6-feet tall. Graduates of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Palisander has quickly established itself as a vibrant young ensemble. Palisander enjoys giving regular family concerts and workshops. This includes working for the prestigious Live Music Now scheme, founded by Yehudi Menuhin and previously, being featured artists in the Wigmore Hall’s Chamber Tots series. Palisander has developed an exciting new show for families, with puppet company Rust and Stardust Productions and is delighted to have received funding for the project, from Arts Council England. Dr Dee’s Daughter and the Philosopher’s Stone is set in Elizabethan England, with themes of magic and science. The show received excellent reviews at its debut performance at BREMF 2016 and will tour in 2017, including performances at Newbury Spring Festival, Lake District Summer Music, Beverley Early Music Festival, Wiltshire Music and the Stables theatre, Milton Keynes. Palisander released its debut CD in 2017.

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