Wednesday 2 October 2013

Back to Bach: Rachel Podger and Marcin Świątkiewicz at Kings Place

Rachel Podger
Part of the Bach Unwrapped series at Kings Place, this was the second of three concerts (25 September 2013) showcasing Rachel Podger’s exquisite playing of the six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin and the six Sonatas for violin and harpsichord alongside Marcin Świątkiewicz.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) first position was as a violinist at Weimar, and his understanding of the possibilities of the violin are clearly felt in his sonatas and partitas for solo violin. Bach started writing them in the early 18th century and probably completed them by about 1720 (the date on his autographed copy). You can see the original notation and direction from the 1720 copy at Bach Digital. But while some details of the original dynamics and phrasings remain, it is up to the individual performer to decide best how to turn the notes on the page into music. With so many voices to choose from at any one time there is plenty of scope for individualism.

In a pre-concert talk Rachel explained to Jonathon Freeman-Attwood why Bach and why baroque. She explained that she grew up surrounded by Bach’s music and sang Bach on a weekly basis while at school, but because she felt that more was possible with the music than they were achieving she became interested in authentic interpretation. She was also interested in playing multiple voices on the violin and experimented with bass lines. She talked about being a channel for the music, and bringing out the different voices with Bach’s music as clearly as she can, as well as investigating the journey of each piece.

When asked about period instruments Rachel described why modern instruments cannot cope with the passion of Bach’s music. Explaining that she can take a baroque violin to the edge of its capability (and sometimes beyond) but that a modern violin with its louder brilliance cannot reach this point in the same way, so that Bach on a modern instrument can become passionless – and Rachel’s music is anything but passionless.

The sonatas are in the style of an Italian sonata da chiesa, a four movement form, with the first two movements paired together as a prelude and fugue. The sonata in A minor has definite melancholic overtones, the first movement a stately and lamentational ‘Grave’ followed by its more lively fugue. Here Rachel gave the ‘Grave’ air and space, and the ‘Fuga’ was light and staccato with separation between the voices and a brilliant run up to the final flourish. In the slow movement, ‘Andante’, Rachel brought out the repeated bass note with its rhythmical repeating, anchoring it beneath the melodic lines. The final fast movement had a scurrying ease with belied its breathtaking speed.

The partitas are sets of French dances interspersed with Doubles, which provide a variation on the movement before. The partita in D minor is perhaps my favourite – largely due to the ‘Sarabande’. The clarity of the initial ‘Allemande’ played by Rachel was followed by a ‘Courante’ of bright contrasts between the staccato and legato passages. The ‘Sarabande’ itself was worth the wait, and a different interpretation to her 1999 recording - less breathy and more luminous. The following rhythmic presto of the ‘Gigue’ led through to complex use of the chords at the start of the ‘Chaconne’, to split chord playing into small and quiet chorale-like singing, and a contemplative finish which revisits earlier movements and ends back at the start.

Marcin Świątkiewicz.
The interspersed sonatas for violin and harpsichord were at times an overwhelming wash of sound. The tonal qualities of baroque violin and obbligato harpsichord alternately married very tightly into one, and then separated back into different voices as the music sped along. Marcin is able to play at different speeds with each hand, stretching out as much nuance as he can from the written score. His skill was even more clearly heard during the superfast solo harpsichord movement, ‘Allegro’ from the Sonata no. 6 in G. The slower movements of the Sonata no. 5 in F minor brought out a melodic heart while its fugues were more serious and troubled.

A final encore of the Sonata in G major for violin and harpsichord was tranquil and simple after the complexities of the preceding sonata and partita and a cheerful end to the concert.

Rachel Podger is an honorary member of the Royal Academy of music (Michaela Comberti Chair for Baroque Violin) and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (Jane Hodge Foundation International Chair in Baroque Violin) and is a visiting Professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. She has won many awards for her recording of baroque and classical music including the 2012 Diapason d’Or de l’année for a recording of LA Cetra Vivaldi concertos. She has just released a new record of solo violin music with Channel Classics called Guardian Angel.

Marcin Świątkiewicz is currently a student at the Academy of Music in Katowice but also performs and records internationally.

There is a final chance to catch Rachel and Marcin at Kings Place later in the year playing more Bach including the remaining Partita and Sonata for solo violin.
review by Hilary Glover

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