“Who needs orchestras?”: Rachel Podger dazzles and delights

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Biber, Telemann: Rachel Podger (violin), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 11.10.2012 (GPu)

Bach: Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001
Bach: Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV 1004
Telemann: Fantasie No.1 in B flat major TWV 40:14
Telemann: Fantasie No.2 in G major, TWV 40:15
Biber: Passacaglia, from The Mystery Sonatas

In a few weeks time the editors of Seen and Heard will, I expect, be asking me to nominate my outstanding concerts of the year. Unless something altogether remarkable happens (and, indeed, happens several times over) in those few weeks this recital by Rachel Podger will very certainly be on my list. Podger’s interpretative clarity, her impeccable intonation, her rhythmic certainty, her irresistible (but unhurried) sense of forward momentum and her expressive tone mark her out as one of the great exponents of the baroque violin. The unaccompanied violin repertoire of the period (or, I suppose, of any period) is a very exposed place for a performer to find him or herself; the slightest misjudgement or error is starkly revealed and can sound horrendous. Podger was, throughout, untroubled by the considerable technical demands of some of this music and, in the nicest possible way, dominated the auditorium with her assurance and her communicative power.

Playing a Pesarinius violin of 1739, Podger began her programme with the first of Telemann’s twelve Fantasies for Solo Violin, a splendid appetiser for what was to come, building up from simple beginnings through some considerable complexity and some fascinating switches of tempo into a brief tour of (some) of the possibilities of the unaccompanied idiom. The vivacity of Telemann’s Fantasie was succeeded by the monumentality of the Passacaglia which closes The Mystery Sonatas of Heinrich Biber. In the eight or nine minutes of this extraordinary piece, which seems to have been used in the services of Salburg’s Confraternity of the Rosary, Podger’s variation of colour and judgement of tempo made for an experience of considerable profundity, an articulation of that meditative spirituality which makes Biber’s work so remarkable. The other non-Bach piece in Podger’s recital was the second of Telemann’s fantasies; under Podger’s fingers the opening largo had beauty and grace in abundance and the ensuing allegros bubbled with the sheer joy of creativity as she traced an irresistible arc towards an affirmative conclusion.

In her Bach, as in the other pieces on the programme, Podger’s playing is a real case of ‘art concealing art’ – she makes it all look and sound ridiculously easy, however difficult the music actually is (and some of these pieces are, of course, formidably demanding). In the G Minor Sonata Podger’s reading of the adagio was full of poetry and beautifully judged tonal shadings, that of the fuga that follows altogether masterly in the clarity with which it laid before the listener the structural principles of the music. The Siciliano had a touchingly expressive opening and the whole was poised and moving; in the closing presto we were treated to playing that dazzled in its responsiveness to the complex polyphony of the writing as well as to the compelling rhythms, like an organ toccata miraculously re-invented on the four strings of the violin.

Bach’s second partita, BWV 1004, fittingly provided the climax of the programme. This is music of great nobility and it got an outstanding performance from Podger. The opening Allemanda was played in a manner that did justice to its air of the quasi-improvisatory, the shaping of line and phrase masterly; in the Corrente that followed the weight of attack was perfectly judged, the vivacity of the triplets a joy throughout. The wonderful Sarabande, with its expressive dissonances and exquisite ornaments, was heart-rendingly beautiful; anyone (such people do exist) who still thinks that Bach’s music is a matter merely of “perfect musical engineering” (as one sceptic said to me recently) should listen properly to a performance such of this of this fine piece; the exuberant Giga is a contrast, itself full of dynamic contrasts as well as vivacious rhythms (both were relished by Podger). And so to the closing Ciaccone … In scale and complexity it is almost sui generis; Brahms described it as “a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings” and we were privileged to hear a performance which did equal justice to thought and to feeling, held in perfect balance. At the same time the Ciaccone is a kind of ultimate text-piece of Baroque violin technique; although she was very far from playing it in the spirit of the test-piece, Podger certainly passed any such test with flying colours. Every now and then one wants to say little more than “Wow!” at the end of a concert. This was one such occasion.

Within a week the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama’s Dora Stoutzker Hall has hosted (amongst other things) outstanding recitals by Stephen Hough and Rachel Podger. What a valuable contribution the College and its excellent new buildings have made to the cultural life of the area.

Glyn Pursglove