Baroque joy and invention in an exhilarating concert by Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Rachel Podger (violin), Brecon Baroque (Marcin Światkiewicz [harpsichord] and Toby Carr [theorbo]). Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 14.4.2024. (GPu)

Rachel Podger

Biber – Sonata Representativa; Sonata No.6 in C minor, The Agony in the Garden
Telemann – Fantasie in E-flat major; Fantasie 3 in F minor
C.P.E. Bach – Fantasia in C minor, Wq 63/6
Pisendel – Violin Sonata in C minor
Robert de Visée – Chaconne in G
Veracini – Sonata in D minor, Op.2/12

Rachel Podger is among the monarchs of the Baroque violin – perhaps the Queen of the instrument. Her technique is magnificent, and her musical imagination is highly developed. She is also gifted when it comes to planning a programme, whether of a single concert (such as this) or an entire festival (as evidenced in the annual Brecon Baroque Festival).

Although she is, of course, an utterly serious musician, Podger is never over-solemn about herself or her art. On stage she communicates her own pleasure vividly, in what she says and how she plays, and in her stage manner. In some brief opening remarks at the beginning of this concert she spoke of the elements of fun and fantasy which characterised much of the music in her programme and then demonstrated such qualities to perfection.

The fun was certainly evident in the opening piece – Biber’s Sonata Representativa – though the work finally reveals itself to have a serious dimension. It opens with an Allegro and closes with an Allemande, neither of which is explicitly representative. They frame a series of short movements, played without a break, which carry the titles ‘Nachtigall’, ‘Cucu’, ‘Fresch’, ‘Die Henn und der Hahn’, ‘Die Wachtel’, ‘Die Katz’, ‘Musquetir Mars’ – i.e. Nightingale, Cuckoo, Frog, the Hen and the Cock, Musketeer’s march. All are aural ‘pictures’. The representation of the nightingale is full of descending thirds and trills, played with vitality and expressivity by Podger. The imitation of the cuckoo’s call is somewhat simpler, the familiar sound being heard beneath a repeated tremolo; this high-energy piece is only about thirty seconds long and was played with the kind of panache one expects (and almost always gets) from Rachel Podger. The sound of the cuckoo melted into the presentation of the frog, which involves the use of several discordant glissandi and some ‘ugly’ scraping of the strings. The farmyard atmosphere is further developed in the sounds of cock and hen, rapid and full of harmonic clashes (readers of Chaucer will surely be reminded of ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’). Fittingly the Quail gets music of greater delicacy, much slower and quieter. The introduction of the cat brings an initial threat to the farmyard; its ascending melody ends with the last note sliding downwards, evoking the moment when the cat is about to pounce. There are, however, greater threats to the animals on the farm along with those who work with them than a simple cat – threats embodied in the musically relentless march of the musketeers. Biber was born (1644) in the last years of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which devastated much of the German-speaking world. The composer would have been well aware of this and may even have had some childhood memories of the death and destruction caused. The slow Allemande which closes the work perhaps reflects upon these dreadful events.

A second piece by Biber, later in the concert, illustrated the range of his programmatic music. This was the sixth of his Mystery Sonatas, ‘The Agony in the Garden’. Gone are the animal imitations, since the subject here is an episode in the Biblical narrative of the Crucifixion in which, between the Last Supper and his arrest Christ withdraws into the Garden of Gethsemane, where he is torn between the human impulse to fear the approaching suffering and the divine knowledge that God will give him the necessary strength (the word ‘agony’ comes from the Greek agon, denoting a struggle or contest). St. Luke’s account (22.39-46) tells us that ‘there appeared to him an angel from heaven bringing him strength, and in anguish of spirit he prayed the more urgently’ (verses 43-44). Biber’s musical narrative articulates Christ’s ‘human’ anxiety and the yearning for the necessary strength and support, as well as the power of Christ’s petitionary prayer.  Listening to this piece makes me think of El Greco’s painting of the ‘Agony’, in Toledo’s Museum of Art. I do not think it is fanciful, making allowances for the differences in media, to find in that artist’s very individual vision and use of paint an analogy with Biber’s use of scordatura (at its most extreme here). Podger’s account of this sonata was passionately expressive across a range of emotions. She was supported superbly by the harpsichord of Marcin Światkiewicz and the theorbo of Toby Carr, the instrumental interplay being altogether delightful. Hearing this sonata played so well was profoundly moving.

Telemann was also represented by two pieces. Unlike Biber, Telemann was not a violin virtuoso, but his understanding of the instrument was fully apparent as Rachel Podger played two of his 12 Fantasias for solo violin, No.7 in E-flat major and No.3 in F minor. Technically speaking these unaccompanied sonatas are a good deal less challenging than the works of Biber, especially for a violinist as talented as Podger. They are, however, full of imaginative touches. The sheer quantity of music Telemann wrote has, I suspect, led to much of it being underrated. Certainly, there are some dull works by Telemann, but how many composers are there of whom that cannot be said?  More importantly his output includes many fine works, including these two Fantasies, which have a profusion of wit and charm. In No.3 particularly interesting passages included the slowish, but intricate, fugal section, the presto section with its extensive use of double-stopping and the closing vivace section, which made a vivid impression with its arpeggiated 16th notes – all played with stylish energy by Podger. No.7 begins sweetly (indeed the first section is marked dolce) and was played with gently introspective lyricism by Podger; the ensuing Allegro had an almost dance-like quality, while the Largo and Presto which close the work involve many changes of register and phrase length, all negotiated with seeming ease by Podger in a performance which brought out the sophistication and beauty of Telemann’s writing for unaccompanied violin. Telemann’s compositions for solo violin have understandably been overshadowed by Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin and by Biber’s colourful works. They are, however, well worth hearing and could scarcely have a better advocate than Rachel Podger.

The remaining two works in which we heard Podger’s eloquent violin were Johann Georg Pisandel’s Violin Sonata in C minor and Francesco Maria Veracini’s Sonata in D minor, Op.2/12. Near contemporaries, both the Saxon Pisandel (1687-1755) and the Italian Francesco Maria Veracini (1690-1768) were judged to be among the major violin virtuosi of their time. It would not, I think, be unfair to say that for the most part their reputations as virtuosi have endured better than their music. However, the performance of Pisandel’s Violin Sonata in C, given by Podger, Światkiewicz and Carr went a long way towards persuading me that Pisandel’s music merits more attention and respect than I have given it hitherto; the third movement, marked Affetuoso was exceptionally beautiful and moving, while the closing Vivace was an energetic celebration of energy itself: I shall investigate more of Pisandel’s music. For all the interpretative and technical skills of these three fine musicians I was left with a familiar feeling after hearing their performance of Veracini’s Sonata in D minor, Op.2/12 – the feeling that Veracini’s music has rather too much show and too little real substance. There are impressive passages, but they are often linked by more vapid music. Blandness never seems far away. Too often Veracini’s effects seem to be merely effects, not the result or expression of musical or emotional argument. These observations are based on past hearings of Veracini’s work as much, or more, than on this present performance. Still, even Podger, Światkiewicz and Carr couldn’t persuade me that hitherto I had missed much in Veracini’s music, though I would qualify that remark by saying that the opening of the third movement (Adagio) had an emotional warmth that transcended instrumental display.

I have left until last brief discussion of the two works which did not involve the participation of Rachel Podger, works in which the two members of her excellent continuo section had their spells in the solo spotlight – Carl Philip Emanuel Bach’s Fantasia in C minor, Wq. 63/6, played by harpsichordist Marcin Światkiewicz and Robert de Visée’s Chaconne in G, played by theorbist Toby Carr. The Fantasia by C. P. E. Bach is one of those works in which one seems to hear post-baroque classicism emerging before one’s ears.  It received a lucidly purposeful interpretation by Światkiewicz, who fused that lucidity with an air of sophisticated improvisation, producing that sense of organic growth that characterises most of the best fantasias. I hope one day to hear a full recital by Światkiewicz, who is clearly a performer of insight and technical certainty. So too is theorbist Carr who gave us a memorable performance of Robert de Visée’s Chaconne in G. I have heard this Chaconne played on the lute and enjoyed it but, as this performance made clear the lower register of the theorbo is better suited to its inherent gravity. Carr’s performance was fluent and quietly hypnotic, subtle variations in dynamics and phrasing ensuring that the work’s repeated patterns held one’s interest throughout.

All in all, this was a richly rewarding concert. Its well-designed programme, full of personal and musical connections, which I haven’t attempted to elucidate, was played with brilliance and sensitivity.

If you have a friend who says that they do not like baroque music, take him or her to a concert by Rachel Podger and a musical conversion-experience may very well occur.

Glyn Pursglove

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