Rachel Podger and Friends Bring Some Glorious Music to Brecon

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Johann Sebastian Bach: St. John Passion:Nils Giebelhausen (tenor, Evangelist), Nicholas Gedge (Christus, bass), Alison Hill (soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Giles Underwood (bass), Orchestra of Brecon Baroque, Choirs of Brecon Cathedral, Mark Duthie (conductor), Brecon Cathedral, 23.10. 2015. (GPu)


Rachel Podger is undoubtedly – as she has regularly demonstrated both in the recording studio and live performances in many countries – one of the world’s finest violinists specialising in baroque music. Since 2000 she has lived, perhaps surprisingly, in Brecon.

Until recent years such musical fame as Brecon possessed was due to its annual Jazz Festival which was founded by the late Jed Williams (who died far too young in 2003) in about 1984/5; the roll call of musicians who have played in the (ongoing) Brecon Jazz Festival is long and impressive, including such names as (in no particular order) Milt Jackson, Sonny Rollins, Abdullah Ibrahim (aka Dollar Brand), Joe Henderson, Stan Tracey, Lee Konitz, Joshua Redman, Benny Carter, Buddy Tate, Jan Garbarek, McCoy Tyner, Cleo Laine, Gerry Mulligan, Courtney Pine, Humphrey Littleton and Joe Lovano.

The Jazz Festival has had, in the last few years, a serious ‘rival’ (though I would prefer to think of the two events as complementary), in the shape of the Brecon Baroque Festival, of which Rachel Podger has been Artistic Director since 2006. It too has already featured many starry names, such as violinist Bojan Cicic and harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, organist/harpsichordist James Johnstone, conductor / keyboard player / scholar John Butt, and singers such as Robin Blaze, Elin Manahan Thomas, Sian Winstanley, Julian Podger (Rachel’s brother), Alison Hill, Giles Underwood and Nils Giebelhausen. The house ‘band’ of the Festival is known, fittingly enough, as Brecon Baroque, founded in 2007 by Rachel Podger and led by her. In its larger orchestral formation it includes violinist Sabine Stoffer, cellist Alison McGillivray, viola players Jane Rogers and Tim Cronin (Ms. Podger’s partner), violone player Jan Spencer, flautists Katy Bircher and Nicola Lauten, oboists Alexandra Bellamy and Hilary Stock, along with a number of lesser-known but highly accomplished musicians (some of them formerly students of Rachel Podger).

The involvement of friends and family (a CD stall was staffed by Rachel Podger’s two young daughters!) in the festival is part of a larger sense that for all of its international dimension, Brecon Baroque is deeply rooted in its place and its community. Friday evening’s opening performance, of the St. John Passion, involved the Choirs of Brecon Cathedral and was conducted by the Cathedral’s organist and Director of Music, Mark Duthie. In the concert scheduled to close the Festival, the South Powys Youth Orchestra were to share the stage with Brecon Baroque in a programme of music by Pisendel and J.S. Bach.

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Brecon Baroque Festival Rachel Podger chose as a theme Bach in Leipzig. The lively and attractive narrow-streeted market town of Brecon, with its fine Georgian buildings, as well as some medieval and Jacobean survivals cannot be said to have any very obvious resemblance to Leipzig, but some imaginative planning (and hard work) had been put into creating some echoes. For the duration of the Festival The Muse, an arts and community centre in the heart of Brecon was renamed Café Zimmerman as a reminder of the Leipzig coffeehouse Café Zimmermann (Zimmermannsche Kaffeehaus) whicch in the time of Telemann and Bach was a centre of secular musical life in the German city. Its Brecon counterpart offered musical performances, art and craft activities and, of course, coffee and cakes. (As another indication of how this festival has been embraced by the local community the festival programme listing the Café’s funding partners included organisations like the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority Sustainable Development Fund, Brecon Town Council, L’Arche Brecon – a community of people with and without learning disabilities working together at a craft – and Little Gems, “a pre-school playgroup… part of the Flying Start initiative for early years provision”). I managed only a brief visit to The Muse / Café Zimmermann and experienced a warm and lively atmosphere, with some beautifully rebound books on sale (courtesy of L’Arche Brecon). Elsewhere the Priory School hosted, on Saturday morning, a Baroque Dance Workshop led by Dancing Master Peter Brock, surely essential preparation for those intending to be at the Baroque Tea Dance later the same day in Theatr Brycheinog.

Due to family commitments I wasn’t able to grace (!) the dance floor and was able to get to only the two concerts detailed at the head of this review, although I would love to have heard, at the very least, Brecon Baroque’s performance of the Art of Fugue (along with BWV 1067, the Orchestral Suite No.2 for flute, strings and continuo, with Katy Bircher as soloist, and Alison McGillivray and John Butt’s programme of music by J.S. Bach for cello and harpsichord, both together and alone.

For a long while the St. John Passion was generally regarded as a lesser (or at any rate less-satisfying) work than the later St. Mathew Passion (first performed some three years after its predecessor). But recent decades have seen a definite growth of interest in, and admiration of, Bach’s earlier Passion. It was first performed on Good Friday (April 7th) 1724 in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. There were further performances in 1725, 1732 and 1749. For all of these performances Bach made revisions/changes. It is, thus, open to modern performers to create a kind of composite version of the work, but Becon’s decision to stay with the original 1724 version is, I believe, the wisest.

The emotional directness of the St. John Passion is one of its great strengths. It helps to make the work a prime example of the kind of ‘music-drama not written for the stage’ that John Eliot Gardiner sees as a quintessential characteristic of those composers he calls ‘The Class of ’85’ (see Chapter 4 of Music in the Castle of Heaven, 2013). The St. John Passion is, indeed, surely superior to the St. Mathew Passion as a work of musical narrative, and in terms of emotional (as distinct from theological) impact and complexity. Gardiner is surely right, and makes the point very lucidly, when he observes, in comparing Bach with his contemporaries, that “with never an opera to his name, Bach will be the one to work his way towards uncovering and releasing a dramatic potency in music beyond the reach of any of his peers, the leading opera composers of the day; and as it turns out, beyond that of any composer until Mozart” (ibid.).

“Dramatic potency in music” was certainly a phrase that returned insistently to my mind when listening to this rich performance of the St. John Passion. As the Evangelist (and soloist in the other tenor arias), Nils Giebelhausen sang with intense dramatic expressivity, while always maintaining a clear musical line and perfect clarity of diction. Recitative after recitative (sung from the pulpit) compelled – and rewarded – total attention. Many ‘details’ were extraordinarily powerful, such as the closing words of No. 12c , the narrative of Peter’s denial of Christ “Da gedachte Petrus and die worte jesu und ging hinaus und weinete bitterlich”, which were sung with heart-breaking emotion, while in even a brief fragment such as 18c, “Barrabas aber war ein Mörder. Da nahm Pilatus Jesum und geisselte ihn”, Giebelhausen produced great dramatic power. The other soloists – though all made valuable contributions – did not make quite such a consistent impact. At times, indeed, they seemed a little inhibited, a little too much in the English choral tradition, rather than fully responsive to the quasi-operatic power of Bach’s music. Robin Blaze gave a beautiful account of “Von dem Stricken meiner Sünden”, full of richly communicative singing, sounding in far better voice and more ‘at home’, than when heard recently in WNO’s Orlando. Giles Underwood started a little tentatively, the voice not fully projected, but improved more and more as the evening went on. His Pilate came to vivid life in Pt. II, especially in the recitatives (Nos. 16a, 16c, 16e and 18a) shared with the Evangelist and Christus. Here a kind of vocal sternness, healthily problematized by an evident humanity was striking and moving. Soprano Alison Hill is possessed of a lovely voice, but at times her phrasing was on the stiff side. Just how good she was at her best was made fully clear in her memorable, intensely poignant,reading of No.33 “Zerliesse, mein Herze”. Bass-baritone Nicholas Gedge, born in Brecon, was a strong and often moving Christus, though his singing was a little short on tonal variety even if, overall, his presence, both physically and vocally, was very impressive.

The work of the orchestra, led by Rachel Podger (playing a viola d’amore on this occasion) was uniformly excellent. Cellist Alison Mcgillivray, flautists Katy Bircher and Nicola Loten and oboists Alexandra Bellamy and Hilary Stock all distinguished themselves in solo or prominent accompaniment at various points.

The choir, numbering some 43 voices, had some outstanding moments, including “Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer”, full of almost febrile agitation and “Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück” full of heartfelt awareness of human fallibility. At other points in the performance the choral sounds from the choir’s position behind the orchestra, at a point in the church where their singing sometimes seemed to leak upwards into the high roof of the nave. As a result, the balance between orchestra and chorus was problematic on occasion, though these problems clearly owed more to the exigencies of the physical space than to any deficiencies on the part of the performers. In other respects the beauty of the Cathedral, most of its nave dating from the late Thirteenth Century, complemented Bach’s music perfectly. Though restored by Sir Gilbert Scott in the Nineteenth Century, the Cathedral retains many earlier features, not least the magnificent fifteenth century Screen.

Mark Duthie, resplendent in his red cassock trimmed in white (reminding us of the originally liturgical purpose of the work) conducted very effectively and intelligently, and did his best to resolve the problems of balance created by the architecture of the Cathedral. My only quibble was with what, one or twice, seemed a rushing of tempo, most strikingly in the final chorus, “Ruht wohl”, which surely should have a more unhurried quality of repose and reflection on the lessons learned by participation (as performer or member of the audience/ congregation) in the whole work, than it had on this occasion.

But it would be quite wrong to end on a negative note. There was much more to admire than to quibble over in this moving performance of the St. John Passion full, as it was, of the kind of emotional impact the work should possess and which, in its use of (in the broadest sense) of ‘community forces’ (notably the Cathedral Choirs), carried something of the same feelings and significance for its audience that the early Leipzig peformances must have prompted in their audiences.

Rachel Podger, apart from being a supremely talented violinist, is evidently one of those enviable people with superb skills in what these days we are encouraged to call time-management skills. Alongside a busy performing and recording schedule, she holds posts at both the Royal Academy of Music (Michaela Comberti Chair for Baroque Violin) and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (Jane Hodge Foundation International Chair in Baroque Violin), she finds time to inspire and sustain (with help) this festival and its ‘house’ band and to be a mother with a young family. On top of all that I learned during this visit to Brecon that she and Tim Cronin set up in 2006, and continue to run, The Mozart Music Fund to provide financial support for children whose parents don’t have the means to pay for music lessons for them and raise moneys through local concerts. She and her colleagues merit any support those of us both less talented and with inferior time-management skills can give them. With that in mind readers of Seen and Heard might like to note that planning for the 2016 Festival is already underway and that the relevant dates next year are October 21st to 24th.


Glyn Pursglove

See also review of the organ recital by James Johnstone.


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