Rachel Podger and Kristian Bezuidenhout bring the beauty of Bach to Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J.S. Bach, Froberger: Rachel Podger (violin), Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord), Wigmore Hall (live stream), London, 15.9.2020. (CS)

Rachel Podger (c) Theresa Pewal

J.S. Bach – Violin Sonata in E minor BWV1023, Violin Sonata No.1 in B minor BWV1014, Violin Sonata No. 2 in A BWV1015
Froberger – Suite No.12 in C major FbWV612
J.S. Bach – Violin Sonata No.3 in E BWV1016, Violin Sonata No.6 in G BWV1019

The twenty concerts that Wigmore Hall streamed live and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in June were, for many who love performing and hearing classical music, especially song, quite literally soul-saving – a light in the darkness which enshrouded us and which still hovers threateningly.  The Hall’s remarkable Autumn Series, comprising 100 live-streamed concerts, opened on 13th September with a recital by baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber and runs until 22nd December.  Monday was ‘cellists’ day’, with Alban Gerhardt and pianist Markus Becker performing at lunchtime followed by an evening recital by Philip Higham and Susan Tomes.  On the following evening, it was a violinist’s turn, as Rachel Podger was joined by harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout to present a programme revealing the inventiveness, freedom and radicalism with which J.S. Bach approached the genre of the sonata for violin.

The six sonatas that Bach composed during his Cöthen years (1717-23), a time when his focus was on instrumental music, emancipated the harpsichord from its continuo role and made it a true partner for the violin, and Podger’s programme offered four of these ground-breaking works which pointed the way forward to the development of a new genre.  But, the musicians began with a genuine ‘duo sonata’, dating from the pre-Cöthen period: the Sonata in E minor BWV 1023, which may have been written for Bach’s friend, the esteemed violinist Johann Georg Pisendel.

Although the nature of the relationship between the two instruments is more conventional than in the later sonatas – written on two staves, with the violin part above a figured bass line – there is still considerable imaginative freedom.  In the opening Prelude, Bach writes a single sustained tonic E, with no continuo figures, on the bass stave.  Podger began her forging semiquavers slowly, freely, before the sequences and patterns, propelled by Bezuidenhout’s sweeping chordal flourishes, gathered momentum and took on a life of their own.  Thus, this ‘up-beat’ to the Adagio, as it were, became a sort of prefatory cadenza, as Podger’s bow weaved its way through the bariolage with astonishingly relaxed acrobatic agility, her circling and spiralling as slick as a juggler’s hand-dance.

It was so mesmerising that the rather abrupt ending was quite a shock: Podger snatched away the final tonic (there’s a fermata in my Urtext edition) and segued into the Adagio, where she roved through Bach’s long-spinning phrases, chromatic twists and linear writhings with quasi-improvisational freedom.  The shadow of the past – particularly of Biber – seemed to hover near.  I did not take to Bezuidenhout’s elaborate harpsichord interjections: unceasingly, he echoed the trills, ornaments and decorative figures in the violin part, but this created an overly fussy texture: there was too much intricacy for the already elaborate violin line to bear, and a lack of spaciousness – often the harpsichordist played through the written rests in the bass part – such as would have elucidated the clarity of the counterpoint between the two instruments.  There was such clarity, however, in the following, Allemande, where Podger’s smoothly articulated paired slurs and strong fingers – paradoxically required to make the rapid slithers sound so slick and light – created an exciting rhythmic energy as if an electrical charge was flickering through the violin line.  At the close Bezuidenhout’s rippling garland echoed the rocking of Podger’s bow across the final bare chord, gathering in and restraining that racing energy.  The Gigue skipped home with carefree grace, occasionally enlivened by a fierce ‘stamp’ from Bezuidenhout’s low left hand.

The B minor Sonata BWV 1014 followed.  I found Bezuidenhout’s quavers rather too deliberate and emphatic: they were slightly detached, evenly weighted, and often decorated, whereas Podger’s double-stopped pairings were slurred, lyrical and nuanced, though strongly sustained and vibrato-less.  Indeed, a niggly feeling in BWV 1023 that the microphone balance wasn’t quite right was strengthened here, especially at the start where Podger’s floating sustained line was over-powered.  The ensuing Allegro was lucid and clear, however: one of those Bach-movements which seem to generate their own material as they are running forward with unflagging creative invention.  The Andante unfolds with that Bach-ian simplicity and naturalness that seems to come direct from the angels: again, I found Bezuidenhout’s mordants, grace notes and arpeggations excessive, though I accept that I probably bring entrenched pre-conceptions to these sonatas!  The Allegro flew – and Podger offered vibrancy and a really gutsy G-string, digging in fiercely.

Bezuidenhout’s elaborations were more delicate in the opening movement of the A major Sonata BWV 1015, resulting in a more intimate and elegant conversation, during which the musicians created self-spinning, intertwining threads of tender fragility and great beauty.  When she turned the Allegro assai’s triple-stopped chords into a surge of celebratory string-crossings, Podger smiled warmly at the live audience.  Bezuidenhout’s staccatos trod gentle steps in the Andante un poco, and the Presto was a lovely dose of sunny, insouciant freedom.

In the opening Adagio of the E major Sonata BWV 1016, the harpsichord’s repeated groups formed a softer, melody-bearing support than had been in the case in BWV 1014, the more restrained elaboration reserved for points of rest, with the result that the greater breadth of this sonata wore its ambition and scope lightly – as was the case in the Adagio ma tanto, the expressive profundity of which was balanced by flowing ease.

Having played the first three sonatas of the group, Podger then leap-frogged to the sixth of the set, in G major, BWV 1019.  There are several ‘versions’ of this sonata: here we had the one with the 2/2 cembalo solo as the third movement (as a violinist, I wouldn’t want to forgo the beautiful Cantabile of the second version!), and the ebullient 6/8 Allegro finale – with both players taking the opportunity for some exuberant improvisation in the latter.  I loved the ‘cool clarity’ of the Largo: here, Bezuidenhout’s conversational ornamentations were eloquent and discreet.  The Adagio had a textural sparseness and cerebral concentration, with no loss of expressive penetration.

Separating the groups of Bach’s sonatas was a Suite by Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667) – slightly delayed by the need to re-tune the harpsichord (a two-manual Robert Goble copy made in 1980 of an instrument by Hamburg-residing instrument maker, Christian Zell (1683-1763)) – in which Bezuidenhout’s musical intelligence and sensitivity came to the fore.  The Stuttgart-born Froberger (1616-67) was one of the most feted keyboard virtuosos of his day and as a composer laid essential foundations for the development of the Baroque style that followed: one could certainly ‘hear’ Couperin in this Suite, and Bezuidenhout ensured that we appreciated the diversity and richness of the well-travelled Froberger’s range and manner of expression.

The Adagio from Bach’s Violin Sonata in G BWV1021 was a calming, soothing encore.

Claire Seymour

This event was streamed live from Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 15 September 2020 and is available free on demand.

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