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Selector's choice: Recorder

6 years ago

With our new Descant and Treble Recorder syllabuses now up and running, we asked Andrew Challingor and Annabel Knight for their top picks from the new lists.

Descant Recorder

Grade 1 – Andrew Challinger

List B
Alan Haughton: One Step at a Time or Calm Seas

These two pieces come from Fun Club for Descant Recorder, Grade 0–1 (with CD). Both have an attractively simple melodic outline with plenty of repetition and an unfussy piano accompaniment. An even, unforced tone and gentle tonguing is needed. The recorder should sing, with no rough edges in the sound. Watch out for the quaver rests in Calm Seas, where the recorder must wait for the piano. The same pieces also appear on the Grade 1 Treble list, taken from Fun Club for Treble Recorder, Grade 0–1.

Grade 2 – Andrew Challinger

List A
Holborne: The Night Watch or The Honie-suckle

Many recorder players love these tunes from Holborne’s 1599 collection. They can be found in First Repertoire Pieces for Recorder (Descant), a collection which also features at Grade 4. Here the two-in-a-bar feel of the dance is important. The notes need to be lightly detached and the breath marks carefully observed to preserve the shape of each phrase. In some places a little more weight is needed to make the music come alive, for example on the tied notes in The Night Watch, but the effect should not be overdone. The result should have a freshness about it – a delight for players and listeners.

Grade 3 – Andrew Challinger

List C
Playford: ’Twas within a Furlong of Edinburgh Town

Though publisher John Playford put this in The Dancing Master, the song is one of many written by Henry Purcell for the stage. It appears in 50 Graded Studies for Recorder, a book which features in List C for all five Descant grades. In the original song Jocky’s amorous approaches to the spirited Jenny are given short shrift. The lively character should come across in the playing, with the dotted rhythms given particular attention. Neat tonguing here is essential and the closing ‘Scotch snaps' should be suitably dismissive. Lots of work on G minor finger patterns will prove invaluable.

Grade 4 – Annabel Knight

List B
Regner: Presto, 3rd movt from Pfiffikus (Clever Clogs)

This short fast piece in 5/4 time comes from a collection by the 20th-century German educational composer Hermann Regner. The Presto movement is reminiscent of a Greek folk dance and features driving rhythms and modal harmony. Although the notes themselves are not especially complex, the challenges here lie in capturing the feel and energy of the irregular time signature and in paying attention to detail with articulation. A nice ‘serious’ option at this grade.

Grade 5 – Annabel Knight

List B
Colin Cowles: A Bright Spark

This comes from Colin Cowles’s Power Up! for Recorder collection, which takes electricity as its theme and also provides Volting! at Grade 4. A Bright Spark is a lively, crowd-pleasing concert piece in compound time with a memorable melody and an effective (but not too difficult) piano part. The piece has a surprisingly Classical feel, offering up plenty of material for discussing structure and form, as well as some useful technical challenges including a few tricky chromatic corners and a variety of different articulation patterns to keep the player on their toes. The CD piano accompaniment is a good bonus for practice purposes.

Treble Recorder

Grade 1 – Annabel Knight

List A
Blow: Air

John Blow’s straightforward Air comes from Easy Baroque Repertoire for Treble Recorder – which also includes a Purcell minuet set for Grade 1 and two other pieces on the Grade 2 list. This is a short piece in simple time, in which the only slightly awkward corner involves a single CG – the rest is all within the key of C major and mostly moves by step in crotchets and quavers. There is potential for exploring mood and character. All the pieces in this book are presented without any editorial interference in the way of dynamics or articulations, making it possible for teachers to discuss the Baroque principle of adding character and dynamics through varied articulation – a concept central to the instrument.

Grade 2 – Andrew Challinger

List B
Elizabeth Cooper: Sly Fox and Boasting Baboon

Taken from Animal Antics for Treble Recorder, these two pieces revisit the 18th-century dance suite. The Sly Fox takes the floor in a minuet and the Boasting Baboon struts his stuff in a bourrée. It is the player’s job to bring out the two different personalities through the dance rhythms. The first piece covers a wide range and work will be needed to maintain the tone-quality at both ends. The second needs precise tonguing in the quaver runs, which should sound effortless. The same book is used for Grade 5, this time calling for Chattering Monkeys and Leaping Lambs.

Grade 3 – Annabel Knight

List A
Vivaldi: Largo cantabile from Concerto, RV 90

This well-known piece is the middle movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto ‘Il Gardellino’ (‘The Goldfinch’) and comes from a volume of Vivaldi Slow Movements for Recorder (Treble) which also features at Grades 2, 4 and 5. This siciliana in 12/8 time represents a good introduction to slow compound time and makes demands on the soloist’s breath control and sense of phrasing and expression. There are plenty of other things to discuss, including the musical implications of the modulations and sequences in the second half, and some tricky ties in the last line. This is a beautiful movement and it’s nice to be able to introduce a short piece of core repertoire at a lower grade.

Grade 4 – Andrew Challinger

List A
Beethoven: Capriccio

Originally for solo piano, this arrangement is published in Concert Repertoire for Recorder, a volume which also appears in the Treble lists for Grades 1 to 3. Some will know this by its popular title, ‘Rage over a Lost Penny’, and though Beethoven may not have used the name, it is helpful in bringing out the character of this highly entertaining piece. It is important to fit the semiquaver runs in the main section with the repeated piano chords and to use a marcato style on the quavers. The middle section should have lighter quavers to make a good contrast. The players need to communicate a strong sense of fun.

Grade 5 – Annabel Knight

List A
Handel: Vivace, 2nd movt from Sonata in D minor, HWV 367a

The Handel Sonatas are no stranger to the syllabus but this is a newcomer to Grade 5. In the style of a hornpipe, this is arguably one of Handel’s best sonata movements, leading us through many harmonic and melodic twists and turns with dramatic, rhetorical gestures a-plenty. Although the notes themselves are relatively straightforward, the whole piece needs careful planning in phrasing and breathing, especially in bringing out the many sequences. Also, the player will need to add their own articulation and dynamics to assist in communicating the emotional highs and lows hinted at in Handel’s melodic shapes.

Grade 6 – Andrew Challinger

List B
Nicholas Marshall: The Old Mole

Nicholas Marshall has really shaken up the original Playford tune in this exhilarating jig, to be found in A Playford Garland. The key of A major is not a natural one for the treble, but this piece should encourage useful scale practice. It won’t be possible to achieve the pace suggested straight away and it would be a mistake to push the Old Mole too hard until the tongued triplets are secure. Fitting with the piano will take some work too, but it’s well worth the effort.

Grade 7 – Annabel Knight

List C
Arnold Cooke: Allegretto, 1st movt from Little Suite No. 2

This suite is published in Pieces for Solo Recorder, Vol. 3, with the third movement, Allegro vivace, set for Grade 6. Arnold Cooke, a pupil of Hindemith, wrote several idiomatic and high-quality pieces for recorder. Harmonically, the Little Suite is interesting, appearing to be based on ‘quartal’ (fourth-based) harmony with frequent chromatic inflections, but still giving the sense of a strong tonal centre. Therefore the player will need to confidently project the syntax of the rhythm and phrasing, in order to make sense of the melodic and harmonic language. There are challenges in articulation (some of the top notes under phrase/slur markings may require discreet tonguing), and in breathing and finger technique, in this serious little piece.

Grade 8 – Andrew Challinger

List C
Christopher Ball: The Pagan Piper

This can be performed on treble or tenor. Imagine it played in a remote mountainous landscape – it needs space and flexibility to make its effect. The swirling runs are not easy and good breath control is required to sustain the longer phrases, particularly on the tenor. In addition the player has to balance the many changing tempi and tonal variety with constant rubato. Players with an assured technique and a strong sense of performance will relish the opportunities offered here.

This article was originally featured in the March 2014 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

The new Descant and Treble Recorder syllabuses are valid now and available at

Andrew Challinger has spent many years teaching young recorder players. He now works mainly with adults as a course and workshop tutor as well as performing, accompanying, conducting and composing.

Annabel Knight is a recorder practitioner with many years of teaching experience. A performer with the Fontanella Quintet and Passacaglia Baroque ensemble, she is currently Head of Recorder at Birmingham Conservatoire. She also runs ensembles and courses for all levels and ages of players.

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