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Rachel Podger

Rachel Podger smiling and resting her head on her hand

Rachel Podger explores a road less travelled in an adventurous recital of solo violin music from pre-Bach to the present day.

One name immediately springs to mind when you think about repertoire for solo violin: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Certainly, his Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato – more simply known as the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin – continue to be the yardstick by which the repertoire is measured. But Bach was not the first composer to experiment senza basso, and he most certainly isn’t the last (Chad Kelly’s Phantasia being just the latest contribution to this genre). Rachel Podger continues to challenge the limits of what can be conjured by the solo Baroque violin, and in tonight’s concert she traverses lesser-known landscapes.

The Klagenfurt Manuscript is a book of about 80 folio leaves which dates from the mid-1680s. It was found in the Convent of St Georgen am Längsee in Carinthia, which in the late 17th century was a community of around 50 nuns and lay sisters.

Could the manuscript have been penned by a nun? Most of the pieces in the manuscript are dances. Like Bach, the author explored how forms such as the Courante, Double, Sarabande and Gigue were not explicitly music for dancing, but rather, music about dance – or, in the words of Bach scholar and condutor John Butt, music that seems to ‘digest’ dance.

The virtuoso violinist was, of course, a much more common author of solo violin music. After all, he – historically speaking – would have travelled to earn his keep, and compositions that dazzled were his bread and butter. Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656– 1705) was one such violinist. He worked at the Dresden court from 1674 to 1697, during which time he toured Europe extensively. Westhoff’s Sechs Suiten fur Violino Solo ohne Basso (1696) is the most obvious precedent to Bach’s set – indeed, it is thought Bach’s encounter with Westhoff in 1703 in Weimar was the inspiration for his own solo Sonatas and Partitas. But Westhoff’s interest in music for solo violin began earlier. In 1683, his Suite pour le violon seul sans bass appeared in the French magazine, Mercure galant, and already we can see the synthesis of German and Italian styles that would be so fundamental to Bach’s writing.

Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770) led a similarly roving lifestyle. Born in Pirano near Trieste, he worked in several Italian towns until 1721, when he was appointed leader of the orchestra at the Basilica of St Anthony in Padua. His contract allowed him to travel, and Tartini also spent some time in Prague. Tartini’s Piccole Sonate, even by modern standards, is huge. Throughout this ‘cycle’ of 30 sonatas, the influence of Arcangelo Corelli is coloured with the folk traces of Tartini’s Istrian homeland. As the composer wrote in 1767, each nation ‘has its own folk songs, many of which are hallowed by tradition, and many renewed and adapted by the popular genius’.

Johann Joseph Vilsmayr (1663–1722) was also a highly regarded violinist in his day. He worked at the Salzburg court from 1689 until his death (it was in Salzburg where Vilsmayr most likely studied with Biber). His only surviving music is a collection titled Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera (1715). The description on its title page – ‘à Violino Solo Con Basso bellè imitate’ – is thought to allude to its contrapuntal contents, rather than an accompanying basso continuo.

The function of solo violin music wasn’t just to dazzle. The three-volume Nogueira Manuscript, by the Portuguese violinist Pedro Lopes Nogueira (c1700–70), is an instructional treatise comprising 240 studies designed to practise shifting and playing in different positions. These historical fingerings tell us not just about the mechanics of violin playing in the early 18th century, but also about modes of expression.

What a solo violin is able to capture lies at the heart of the two Bach arrangements in tonight’s concert. The commission arose from Podger’s reading of an article by musicologist Peter Williams that explores the notion that Bach’s Toccata and Fugue for organ was an arrangement of a pre-existing solo violin work. Podger was initially worried about the limitations of the violin: ‘at first, I tried to sound like an organ – which is not actually possible on the violin. That epic sound on the organ that we all know so well: how can that beginning not be for organ?’ But she found that ‘the more I tried it out on the violin, the more it seemed to fit … it just felt right’. The stylistic evidence presented by Williams in his article, in particular, the violinistic nature of the work’s bariolage patterns, came alive for Podger under her fingers.

Reconfiguring the supposed nature of a work was also at play with Bach’s Cello Suites. Podger recognised that there would have to be adaptations: ‘with its smaller resonating body, the violin speaks more quickly and the immediacy of sound enables it to be more flexible, flighty and agile than the more circumspect and gravitational cello’. Tempo was one way in which Podger got around this. Played a little faster than is usual on a cello, the suites took on a new expressive vocabulary that was more firmly rooted in dance. For Podger, the Sixth Suite is the ‘consummation and affirmation of belief: utterly radiant and life-affirming’.

© Mark Seow

Programme and performers

Johann Sebastian Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV565 (arr Chad Kelly in A minor)
Nicola Matteis Jr Fantasia in C minor, Con Discretione
Johann Joseph Vilsmayr Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera
1. Prelude
2. Aria
3. Saraband
4. Aria
5. Minuet
6. Aria
7. Minuet
8. Aria
9. Gigue
10. Aria variata
A Suite of short movements from the Nogueira and Klagenfurt manuscript

Johann Paul von Westhoff Suite pour le violon seul sans basse
1. Prelude
2. Allemande
3. Courante
4. Sarabande
5. Gigue
Giuseppe Tartini Violin Sonata No 17 from Piccole Sonate
1. Andante cantabile di se senti
2. Allegro assai
3. Aria del tasso
4. Furlana
5. Minuet
Chad Kelly Phantasia
Johann Sebastian Bach Cello Suite No 6
in G major, BWV1012
1. Prelude
2. Allemande
3. Courante
4. Sarabande
5. Gavotte I & II
6. Gigue

Rachel Podger violin


Rachel Podger has established herself as a leading interpreter of the Baroque and Classical violin. She was the first woman to be awarded the Royal Academy of Music/Kohn Foundation Bach Prize in October 2015, was named Gramophone Artist of the Year in 2018, and the Ambassador for REMA’s Early Music Day in 2020. She is the founder and Artistic Director of Brecon Baroque Festival and her ensemble Brecon Baroque, as well as being Patron for The Continuo Foundation and an Ambassador for the Learned Society of Wales.

She has been artist-in-residence at Wigmore Hall and collaborates with orchestras and ensembles worldwide, including most recently the BBC Philharmonic, Royal Northern Sinfonia and Philharmonia Baroque.

Current and forthcoming engagements include concerts with Tafelmusik, Salamanca Baroque, Luthers Bach Ensemble, Handel and Haydn Society, Montana Baroque and Tesserae Baroque.

She has worked as a director and soloist with many other collaborators, among them VOCES8, Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini, Robert Levin, Jordi Savall, Christopher Glynn, Kristian Bezuidenhout, Masaaki Suzuki, Armonico Consort, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Academy of Ancient Music, San Francisco Early Music, Holland Baroque Society and the Oregon Bach Festival.

Her most recent release on Channel Classics is Tutta sola: featuring much of the repertoire she plays tonight; other releases include C P E Bach with Kristian Bezuidenhout, and The Goldberg Variations Reimagined: a new arrangement by Chad Kelly with Brecon Baroque. Recent releases with Christopher Glynn include the world premiere of three previously unfinished Mozart sonatas and Beethoven Sonatas Nos 1, 5 and 10. Past releases include Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with Brecon Baroque and Bach Cello Suites transposed for the violin.

She has won numerous accolades, including two Gramophone Awards for Vivaldi’s La Stravaganza concertos (2003) and Biber’s Rosary Sonatas (2016); a Diapason d’Or de l’année for her recording of Vivaldi’s La Cetra concertos (2012); two BBC Music Magazine awards for Guardian Angel (2014) and the complete Vivaldi L’Estro Armonico concertos (2016).

Recent highlights include featuring in the VOCES8 Foundation’s LIVE From London festival in a new advent version of A Guardian Angel, alongside I Fagiolini in their Christmas programme Angels and Demons, performing solo Bach for the Gramophone Award-winners’ Digital Gala, appearing at Bitesize Proms, BOZAR at Home, Living Room Live, Baroque at the Edge, and participating in a collaborative disc by Musicians for Musicians: Many Voices on the Theme of Isolation.

A dedicated educator, she holds the Micaela Comberti Chair for Baroque Violin (founded in 2008) at the Royal Academy of Music and the Jane Hodge Foundation International Chair in Baroque Violin at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. She has a relationship with The Juilliard School in New York where she visits regularly.