United Kingdom Ryedale Online Festival 2020 – Vilsmayr, Biber, Bach: Rachel Podger (violin), recorded in the Chapel at Castle Howard, Ryedale, 20.7.2020. (CS)
Vilsmayr – Partita 6 in A major
Biber – Passacaglia, The Guardian Angel
Bach – Cello Suite No.6 in D major BWV 1012
The summer festivals continuing to stream sonorously into music lovers’ homes can sometimes seem like episodes of Wish You Were Here – the television show which for almost 30 years brought glimpses of tantalising ‘elsewheres’ into the nation’s living rooms, while Judith Chalmers cheerful explained why we should be ‘here’ rather than ‘home’. And, after all, who wouldn’t wish to be in Ryedale, nestled comfortably amid the North Yorkshire moors, for a week of walking in areas of outstanding natural beauty and beautiful music in venues both picturesque and statuesque.
Castle Howard’s magnificent medley of Baroque flamboyance and Palladian graciousness certainly professes – no less than the surrounding 1000-acre estate of parkland and woodland, with the Howardian Hills beyond – the ambition and grandeur of the stately home and its past residents. Begun by the 3rd Earl of Carlisle in 1699, the original designs by Nicholas Hawksmoor did not actually – much modified by the whims and predilections of later Howard descendants, with the initial Baroque ideals counter-balanced by Palladian additions – reach completion until over 100 years later. Damaged by fire in 1940, Castle Howard subsequently became best-known to many as Brideshead in the 1981 television serial and 2008 film adaptations of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. And, it was to the Chapel, located within the 18th-century west wing, that we travelled for the first of the Ryedale Online Festival’s 2020 concerts, performed in the Castle’s impressive pre-Raphaelite Chapel by violinist Rachel Podger.
Johann Joseph Vilsmayr (1663-1722) was a violinist who worked in Saxony, where he probably came under the mentorship of Heinrich Ignaz Biber (1644-1704). If Vilsmayr’s name is less familiar than that of his teacher, it is probably not surprising: the only extant work by Vilsmayr is his Artificiosas Concentus pro Camera of 1715 – a set of six partitas for unaccompanied violin, each comprising numerous short dance movements.
The four central partitas exploit scordatura piquancies but the framing partitas employ conventional tuning, and it was with the Sixth Partita that Podger began this recital. The Chapel’s bright, sympathetic acoustic enhanced the optimistic shine and ring of the recitative-like Prelude, Podger drawing a lovely full richness from her violin to prepare for and invite us into a tuneful, sprightly Aria, increasingly decorated with flying runs and taut trills. The grace and balance of a Sarabande perfectly complemented the tasteful elegance of the pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts designs on the walls, ceiling and windows. An occasional harmonic twist, though not as adventurous as Biber’s own familiar unconventionalities, offered touching light and shade.
The second Aria delighted in contracts: spiccato tiptoeing alternated with legato fluidness, the juxtapositions seamless negotiated by Podger; plush double-stopping segued into flowing semiquavers, the violinist melodising with brilliant voicing in both. A Menuett was stately, finely coloured and diverse of texture. In each short movement, Podger found variety of dynamics and character. And, not a little humour: in movement VI, another Aria, the quirky fragmentation of the material and articulation seemed to defy a violinist to create coherence. Of course, Podger did so. Movement VIII (there was no VII?) was, by contrast, an intimate fantasia – silky, delicate, secretive. After the teasing echoes of the Gigue, the Partita concluded with an Aria variata, confident ground-bass variations the increasing virtuosity of which were made ever more effortless. More than this, from a compendium of technical challenges, Podger made music.
The passacaglia for solo violin which closes Biber’s Fifteen ‘Mystery’ Sonatas followed. Nicknamed ‘The Guardian Angel’, the passacaglia was here played with numerous such guiding spirits watching down: the camera spanned to allow us to enjoy the visual splendour of Burne-Jones’ stained glass windows, which were executed by William Morris in 1872, and the frescos depicting designs by Charles Eamer Kempe. Podger, however, seemed to need no divine intervention to untap the passacaglia’s mysteries. The formal simplicity of the work, which is built upon a familiar descending tetrachord, was complemented by the directness of the violinist’s articulation of the musical arguments. This was a beautifully unfussy performance. Podger communicated a fine sense of the spaciousness of the musical architecture, retaining strong melodic momentum but judging the structural pauses with acuity. Whether resonating as a firm ‘bass’ or assimilated within the middle voices of the multi-stranded counterpoint, the ground sang strong and true. Unaccompanied, its vibrato-less sureness and sincerity were reassuring; occasionally softened with the slightest nuance applied gently by the fingers, it acquired a consoling tenderness.
Biber’s series of sonatas commemorates fifteen stages in the life of Christ, and, surviving only in decorated manuscript form bearing a dedication to the composer’s employer, the Archbishop of Saxony, the Mystery Sonatas seem to have been written for the meditations on the Rosary that were held in Catholic churches each October. In this Anglian Chapel they were a haunting reminder of both man’s fragility and his hope.
Podger concluded her recital with unaccompanied Bach, but not one of the six sonatas and partitas that are every violinist’s staple fare; rather, we heard Bach’s Cello Suite No.6 in D major. This should really have come as no surprise, since Podger released a disc of all six of the composer’s cello suites to acclaim last year, on the Channel Classics label. The last of the suites was of course written for a five-stringed cello, so much of the music lies within the violin’s natural register, and there is only need for occasional octaves transpositions when Bach dips deep onto the cello’s C-string – though, such is the almost hypnotic fluency of the opening Prelude, for example, I challenge the listener to notice the slight amendments. In any case, Podger can make her gut G-string ring with the gritty resonance of the cello’s deepest, most voluminous rumbles when she so wishes – and such moments are more telling still because of the prevailing lightness and airiness of her playing. The dynamic contrasts in the Prelude were brilliantly theatrical in effect and disciplined in execution, and ornament was employed judiciously and sparingly, meaning that dancing grace notes and tight trills never fail to thrill, and make familiar music sing and spring anew.
I found the extreme freedom of the Allemande a little too excessive. While largely observing a steady underlying pulse, Podger took considerable liberty with the rhythmic values within the elaborate phrases, emphasising the improvisatory and rhapsodic feeling but also pushing spontaneity to the borders of disintegration – and here the ‘airiness’ arising from her tendency to lift the bow a little and disconnect the concluding note of the short curling phrases from its immediate predecessors exacerbated the sense of dissolution. I certainly don’t want my Bach to sound like mathematics – even if musicologists have argued for evidence of the composer’s interest in numerology – but it would have been hard to have danced to this Allemande without falling over one’s partner’s feet, although I expect that the slightly mystical mood would no doubt have appealed to many listeners.
In the Courante, however, the integration of nimble-fingered cascades and the slightest of rubato breaths resulted in a racing excitement that was never hyperbolic or hasty, always elegant. Agility, athleticism and articulacy working together to produce phrases of strength and eloquence. And, here, where a few phrases could not plunge down to reach their capacious foundations occasionally the odd octave transfer worked to Podger’s benefit, allowing her to leap down to an open D string, the carillon ring of which was magnified by the Chapel acoustic. And if the violin cannot reproduce the generous density of the cello’s lower strings, nor their dark melancholy, then in the Sarabande Podger sustained a focused intensity and breadth.
The two Gavottes danced with a delicious gaiety, the spiccato bowing having, somehow, both crackling bite and devil-may-care insouciance. The measured control of the concluding Gigue was tempered by injections of fancy and of simplicity. It closed this lovely recital with a sort of musical smile of satisfaction, a happiness which was confirmed by the encore, the Largo of the C major Sonata for solo violin – angelic song indeed.