United Kingdom Bach, Purcell, Fux, Telemann: Rachel Podger (violin) with Sinfonia Cymru, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 30.5.2015, (LJ).
Bach, Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068
Purcell, Suite from Fairy Queen
Bach, Violin Concerto in A Minor, BVW 1041
Fux, Overture in G Minor, K355
Vivaldi, Concerto No 10 from ‘L’Estro Armonico’, Op.3
Telemann, Concerto in D Major, TWV 53:D5.
In an interview for Sinfonia Cymru Rachel Podger was asked to describe Bach, Purcell, Fux, Vivaldi, and Telemann each in three words, In this review I set myself the same challenge for Podger.
Known as a Baoque violinist par excellence, Podger gave a rare performance on a modern violin to coincide with Sinfonia Cymru’s modern feel, who accompanied Podger in Cardiff’s RWCMD. Usually playing on a 1739 violin made in Genoa by Pesarinius (a later student of Antonio Stradivari), for this recital Podger confessed that not owning a contemporary instrument, she had had to borrow one. Compromising by replacing all of the top strings with a gut-string, she merged old and new worlds in both her instrument and style. As she told Strings Magazine in 2005, “I didn’t have any orchestral training in Baroque violin; I just learned by doing, spending many years playing second violin to Pavlo Beznosiuk.” This on-the-job training came across in her responsiveness and involvement with all sections of the orchestra.
Beginning with Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D Major, Podger’s expressivity was immediately apparent. Her enthusiasm and dynamism made her a great orchestral leader as she remained both attentive and assertive to those around her. The infamous Air on the G String was played with intelligent simplicity (helped by Podger’s unfussy style and reduced vibrato). Her tempo was spot-on as she created a contemplative, but not excessively sentimental sound. Whilst the overall mood was one of verve and uplift, at times the orchestra could have played with a lighter more frivolous weightlessness. However, Podger was certainly not to be weighed down as she conveyed Bach’s French courtly style with rousing panache.
First performed on 2nd May 1692 at the Queen’s Theatre in Dorset Garden, Henry Purcell’s suite from The Fairy Queen was originally based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fairies, drunken poets, Chinese dancers, allegorical metaphors of the seasons – Purcell’s cast is replete with a stock of commedia dell-arte characters, all colourful bon viveurs. Shifting from major to minor, Purcell’s harmonies formed a witty interplay between dark and light. All the while, Podger remained luminous and crystalline, cutting through Purcell’s ominous foliage as a thorny rose.
As if singing Bottom’s bird song in the wood, the textured dynamic between bass and treble offered a wonderful array of sounds poking out of the orchestra, particularly evident when they performed Song Tune: ‘If love’s a sweet passion’. Their recital of Hornpipe in G minor was touching and sensitive. Feeling like Titiana hearing Bottom sing, I recall her words:
I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again.
Mine ear is much enamored of thy note.
So is mine eye enthrallèd to thy shape.
And thy fair virtue’s force perforce doth move me
On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee. (Titiana, A.3, S.1)
Returning to Bach to close the first half, Podger came alive in her inspired performance of his Violin Concerto in A Minor. Momentous, introverted, elegant and sustained, this piece is a challenge for any violinist. However, with her seamless ornamentation and wistful grace, she displayed an affinity with Bach that was astonishingly natural and impressively unique. Podger and Bach is what cream is to coffee. Housed in Cardiff’s own Café Zimmermann, she was stimulated by more than caffeine as she played this concerto with flawless alacrity. In the second movement, Podger held the longer notes to paint an image of sunlight piercing through a keyhole, creating a direct line between performer and audience. The body and heat from Sinfonia Cymru’s double bass (Dave Johnson) and cellos (Steffan Morris and Peggy Nolan) conveyed a sense of assurance and stability to this fluctuating piece. A Baroque concerto written in ritornello form, the main section returned in fragments picked up on by all sections of the orchestra. The final movement was a display of brilliance, throwing the door open to the audience now basking in Podger’s sunlight. Dazzled by Podger, Sinfonia Cymru also seemed stunned as they were blinded by her lustre.
By far the least known composer of the evening, J. J. Fux made an appearance with his Overture in G Minor. Famous as the author of Gradus ad Parnassum, a study of Palestrina; Fux also composed works for the Habsburg court of Leopold I in Vienna. Similar to Bach’s Suite in D Major, Fux’s courtly composition sounds like a more-stately piece by Corelli (who influenced Fux after he took a trip to Italy in the late 1680s). Although his music didn’t regain favour after his death until fairly recently, his mastery of counterpoint influenced countless composers through his treatise Gradus ad Parnassum (1725). It is interesting to note that masters such as Haydn taught himself counterpoint from Fux’s composers’ manual, recommending it to the young Beethoven. Mozart also owned a copy that he annotated, as did Schumann. In the Overture in G Minor, Podger and Sinfonia Cymru played the flourishing rhythms and stately chords with conviction and reverence.
L’Estro Armonico, Op. 3 (‘Harmonic Inspiration’), was written in 1711 (preceding the Four Seasons by nine years) and is a wonderfully labyrinthine Italian baroque concerto grosso. As part of a collection of twelve concertos for one, two and four violins, it has been considered by Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot as: “perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the eighteenth century”. In the tenth of this series written in B minor for four violins, cello and strings, there are seven layers (as the two violas have separate parts). Much like Italian conversation, this was not only a sound, but a sight to behold as all musicians spoke to one another with Italian flair; violinist Caroline Pether was particularly sprightly. With arms raised in fervour, heads bobbing in acknowledgement, brows furrowed in consternation then relaxed in delight, and bodies swaying in empathy, all the musicians engaged in a korero of great scale and understanding. Podger navigated her way through this musical palimpsest with ease and familiarity.
Finishing with Georg Philipp Telemann’s Concerto in D Major, Podger and Sinfonia Cymru resounded their concert with an energetic, sinouous and t(h)rilling piece written by the most prolific of Baroque composers. (Telemann’s oeuvre comprises over 3,000 pieces). With its contrast of joyousness and tautness, all musicians brought out the folk influences whist creating an incredibly intense mood in the second movement. Podger’s warbling strings and slow vibrato evoked eerie suspense in the second movement before wowing all in a fit of virtuosity. Introducing the piece as “sparkly and very fun to play with lots of scrubbing and showing off”, Podger didn’t fail to deliver with characteristic enthusiasm.
Founder of the Brecon Baroque Festival (est. 2006), award-winning musician Rachel Podger was an invigorating director and great inspiration for the young musicians in Sinfonia Cymru. Giving tips and guidance during rehearsals for three days before the concert, she can be regarded as a musician who invests not only in music, but in burgeoning musicianship as well.
To find just three words for a talent with such outreaching virtuosity seems an impossible task, though I would have to say that Podger is a musician of zest, naturalness, and fearlessness. But above all, she is quite simply unique.