A new recording from violinist Rachel Podger is always worth attention. And before you even get to appreciating the first-class performances - faithful realizations of Bach’s Art of Fugue skillfully arranged for strings - you notice the immediate, vibrant presence of the instruments. The sound is stunning, reminiscent of the early days of digital recording, when listeners used to marvel at how realistic the sound was. Channel Classics has been doing this forever; we just may have forgotten how special it is when it’s done right.
It's well known that most of Bach's harpsichord concertos began their lives as violin concertos. Since only three violin originals survive–the ones designated as BWV 1041-43–and since these are among his greatest instrumental works, musical scholars and performers have been reversing the process, turning the harpsichord concertos back into violin originals. BWV 1060 is one such case, a concerto for two harpsichords, which sounds much less clangy and bangy in this reconstructed version for two violins.
Among countless interpretations of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which range from modernized performances for large string orchestra to period-style versions for much leaner ensembles, there are few as pared-down as Rachel Podger's performances with Brecon Baroque. Podger plays the virtuosic solo violin part and directs an ensemble consisting of two violins, one viola, and one cello, supported by a continuo of violone, theorbo, and harpsichord or chamber organ. This might give an impression of extreme austerity or thinness of sound, but the surprising richness of the group's textures suggests that tonal production counts more than the number of players.
A long time ago, back in the 1970s, period instrument performances mostly sounded sweet and low down. Part of the reason for this was the catgut strings and the lower tuning, and part of the reason was that players seemed to prefer a mellower and rounder tone. But time passed and period instrument performances became more and more strident until they became nearly painful to listen to by the late '80s. Violinist Rachel Podger has recaptured the mellow sounds of yesterday by producing a warm and almost human sound with her 1739 Persarinius instrument.
Violinst Rachel Podger presents the first recording of Bach's Cello Suites on violin. Bach had a habit of recycling his own compositions for different instruments and different uses. The examples are endless; concertos appearing as sinfonias in cantatas, or concertos for violins turned into harpsichord concertos. Podger, who has spent a fair bit of time coaching cellists, both modern and baroque alike, found herself playing along to demonstrate various points. ''I started catching myself playing some of the movements I particularly loved while warming up, and realizing that it was actually possible to play them on the violin, and to find a special expressive vocabulary at the higher pitch.''
Hitherto we have heard Rachel Podger only in early chamber works and as Andrew Manze's partner in Bach double concertos: here now, at last, is an opportunity to hear her on her own. And you couldn't be more on your own than in Bach's mercilessly revealing Solo Sonatas and Partitas, perhaps the ultimate test of technical mastery, expressiveness, structural phrasing and deep musical perception for a violinist. Playing a Baroque instrument, Podger challenges comparison with the much praised and individual reading by Monica Huggett: she has many of the same virtues – flawless intonation, warm tone, expressive nuances, clear understanding of the proper balance of internal strands – but her approach is sometimes markedly different.