Thursday, 14 June 2018

Artist Spotlight - Violinist Rachel Podger

Rachel Podger © Theresa Pewal
Proving her “intoxicating combination of power and grace” (Toronto Star) internationally renowned baroque violinist Rachel Podger has established herself as a leading interpreter of the music of the Baroque and Classical periods. Rachel has performed as a soloist and guest director with many of the world’s top ensembles and in 2007 founded her own group Brecon Baroque. 

Yorkshire Bach Choir is very excited to be welcoming Rachel to York on Saturday 23 June in a concert also featuring our performance of the J.S. Bach Motets with the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists.  Ahead of her appearance we caught up with this busy musician to ask her a range of questions on topics ranging from Bach to her rather large dream dinner party!

We started off by asking Rachel to tell us a bit more about the Bach that she is performing in York....

Peter Seymour and I will be playing 2 of Bach's set of 6 Sonatas for obligato keyboard and violin: c minor BWV1017 and G major BWV1019. These two sonatas are basically trio sonatas but to be performed by 2 players - the keyboard player gets two parts and the violinist one - easy for me! Both hands are written out in the keyboard part as supposed to a 'continuo part' where the player has only the bass part written out and improvises the right hand part according to the harmony code provided by the figures written below the bass part (known as 'figured bass').  

Sonata in c minor starts with a beautiful soulful tune in the violin accompanied by a continuous stream of arpeggios in the keyboard. This is followed by a dense and complex fugue; the material used here is very concentrated and cleverly constructed, you feel like you've witnessed a masterful chess game after playing it! The third movement provides relief in a beautiful comforting and quite mesmerising aria in the relative major key of E flat major. He returns to c minor for the last movement with more fugal figurations and intensity.

The G major Sonata in contrast to the c minor is sunny in nature, written in 5 movements and includes one movement for keyboard alone. Cascades of G major arpeggios and lively figurations move in contrary motion in the joyful and pleasing first movement. The second is a searching largo in e minor leading into the rhythmic keyboard solo in the same key. A chromatic Adagio in b minor follows which at times expresses extreme loneliness and desperation. This is all made good though by the last movement which dances and frolics with sheer delight returning to G major.

You've recently recorded and performed a significant amount of Bach's repertoire for violin.  What is your  experience of Bach's music?

Bach's music has been a steady accompaniment in my life. My first memory of the name 'Bach' being uttered was when I'd been dancing around as a small child to the lovely tune in his Chorale 'Jesus, bleibet meine Freude' or 'Jesu joy of man's desiring' (from the Cantata 'Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben' BWV 147). My parents always had music on at home, and music making together at home was part of growing up for me. I remember learning to count rests while playing one of the parts of a Bach trio sonata as a child, and then discovering the Bach violin concertos and being desperate to play them as a young teenager. Unfortunately my strict teacher at the time let me know that 'we only play Bach after the age of 40' ! It didn't put me off, and I picked up the music and played it and loved it anyway! 

Bach's music is like nothing else - his music seems utterly complete. Structurally it is so well crafted, the voices and characters in his themes are utterly clear, his articulation signs are full of expression and thoroughly thought out, in short his musical intentions are always clear. There is a strong sense of satisfaction when playing or listening to any music by him, and it's a little like considering a large, healthy and beautiful tree with symmetrical branches but with plenty of interesting and unpredictable shapes and details as well - just all in a perfect natural balance. His music is both exciting and calming, majestic and humble, forceful and tender. It's technically challenging too (I'm thinking about the works for solo violin) and musically you're on a constant discovery trail. The work I found most intensely joyful and which had a profound effect on me playing-wise recently was the Art of Fugue. Representing one voice in this consort of 4, I felt just so at home, and a calm heavenly kind of happiness pervaded all 4 players I think. It was also something about being an essential cog in a wheel which would only turn when all cogs were equally 'in synch'.

Is there any piece of music or repertoire that you haven’t had the opportunity to perform yet but would like to?

I've been very lucky in that I've played and performed a lot of Bach during my life and career, lots of his instrumental music, all the large works and many of his Cantatas (mostly thanks to that incredible venture by the Royal Academy of Music to perform all Cantatas over 10 years), but there is always more to discover...or to arrange in fact!

As a youngster, did you ever have a eureka moment listening to or performing a certain piece of music?

Yes I did! I remember listening to Bach's Musical Offering at a concert my parents gave when I must have been pretty young (I mostly remember what my mother was wearing!), but the trio sonata from the MO made a huge impact on me. It seemed like the best 'sound' jigsaw. I must have heard my father practicing it at home on the flute beforehand, come to think of it, and I remember wondering how many trills there were in one phrase alone!

Musically, when have you felt the happiest?

When I've either felt complete playing in an ensemble when all players are on there same wave-length and something special kicks in during a performance, and also sometimes during solo recitals when I've felt a sense of awe at the music (this mostly happens when playing Bach).

What was the first ever record or CD you bought?

I think it might have been an LP of the Beatles!! (70's mania indeed!)

What’s the worst thing anyone has ever said to you about music?

That Vivaldi was boring to have written the same concerto x-number of times!

Rachel's recent recording of Vivaldi: Le Quattro Stagioni with Brecon Baroque

If you could travel in a musical time machine to experience a certain period or era in history where and when would you travel to?

Probably Italy in the seventeenth century - the golden era of violin composers and when violinists were experimenting with all sorts of new violinistic tricks and musical ideas. It must have been pretty exciting to be alive then.

What is your musical guilty pleasure?

Listening to virtuosic folk-fiddling, Irish, Swedish, Czech, Albanian, Greek, Croatian...

How do you relax?

Hmmm, cooking dinner at home for my family and catching up with our teenagers, going out for dinner, going to the cinema (doesn't happen enough!), stroking and talking to our cat Mietzi who adopted us 13 years ago and has the most beautiful nature.

What is your most treasured possession?

My violin of course, but also a miniature facsimile of Bach's violin solos given to me by my teacher David Takeno after graduating from the Guildhall School of Music.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Oh gosh! Too many dream people to list...How big a table may I have?

Let's see:

Johann Sebastian Bach

Clara Schumann

Charlie Chaplin

Ludwig van Beethoven

Audrey Hepburn

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Signor Antonio Vivaldi

Maya Angelou

Joseph Haydn

Billie Holiday 

(I had Wolfi Mozart in there too, but he'd probably get too drunk too quickly and slide under the table!)...

We look forward to hearing Rachel performing with Peter Seymour at St Michael le Belfrey, York on Saturday 23 June at 7.30pm.  In the same concert Yorkshire Bach Choir and Yorkshire Baroque Soloists will perform J.S. Bach's monumental Motets. 

Further details on the concert and how to buy tickets can be found at:

You can find more information on Rachel Podger at including details of her most recent recordings.

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