Friday 16 September 2016

Baroque pearls: Rachel Podger & Marcin Swiatkiewicz

Rachel Podger - Credit: Jonas Sacks
Rachel Podger - credit: Jonas Sacks
Fontana, Castello, Frescobaldi, Leonarda, Corelli, Vivaldi, Geminiani, Veracini; Rachel Podger, Marcin Swiatkiewicz; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 16 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Vividly engaging survey of the first century of Italian violin sonatas

Under the title Perla Barocca, the recital by Rachel Podger & Marcin Swiatkiewicz at Kings Place last night (15 September 2016) explored the Italian violin sonata taking us on a journey from Dario Castello's Sonata Seconda of 1621, to Francesco Maria Veracini's Sonata No. 12 in D minor for violin and continuo Op.2 No. 12 from 1744. This century or so saw the rapid development of the sonata and the concept of writing both for publication (for amateurs) and for professional violinists. 

The sequence of sonatas chosen by Rachel Podger showed how the improvisatory freedom of the early sonatas was gradually replaced by a greater formality. We started with Giovanni Battista Fontana's Sonata Seconda, followed by Castello's sonata, Girolamo Frescobaldi's Toccata per spinettina e violino, Isabella Leonarda's Sonata Duodecima in D minor, Arcangelo Corelli's Sonata Op. 5 No. 12 in D minor La Follia, Antonio Vivaldi's Sonata for violin and basso continuo in A, Op.2, No. 2 (RV31) and Francesco Geminiani's Violin Sonata in D minor Op.4 No. 8 (H92), concluding with the Veracini sonata. We also heard two of Geminiani's harpsichord pieces from Pieces de clavecin which were in fact simplified versions of movements from his solo violin pieces.

All the music in the programme was published, which means that though much of it was extremely technically demanding, it was more widely available to players of all abilities than works which remained in manuscript. A further fascinating factor in the music was the way that it showed how the musical centre of gravity in Europe moved around. Though Italy remained the hot-house of talent during the period, both Geminiani and Veracini ended up in Georgian London. As a pupil of Corelli, the former was very popular in London but Veracini was less so, his music being seen as too 'wild and flighty'.

The sonatas also moved from the less structured to the highly structured.
The earliest, Fontana's Sonata seconda and Castello's Sonata seconda were continuous, through-composed from beginning to end with multiple short sections. This gave a freedom to the music, as the composer was not restricted by the more concrete forms used in the later 18th century. This improvisatory freedom can be seen as akin to the flexible arioso-like recitative found in a lot of vocal music of the period. In a spoken introduction Rachel Podger talked about the spirit of improvisation needed in the works and how the very freedom of the structure, with its mass of contrasting short sections, and the lack of detailed markings meant that the performers had a lot of freedom, commenting that 'it gets quite wild at times'. There was a indeed a lovely improvisatory quality to her performances, and to her dialogues with Swiatkiewicz. There was also something highly involving and engaging in her playing; yes this was technically stunning, but it was the tone quality and degree of engagement from both players which drew you in. Castello's sonata in particular finished with some wonderfully wild gypsy-like moments.

Frescobaldi's Toccata per spinettina e violino was a rare early example of a fully written out harpsichord part, and here we started with a feeling of free improvisation in the violin over a more slow moving harpsichord, before contrasting moments appeared with plenty of solo harpsichord. Isabella Leonarda was a cloistered nun (Brighton Early Music Festival performed her Dixit dominus in 2015, see my review), but she produced a single set of violin sonatas. Her Sonata duodecima was more formally divided into sections, five of them, but it still had something of the freedom and fluidity of the earlier works. Here though, there was an interesting darkness to the timbre (much of the violin writing is low), and the work used the unequal temperament of the tuning to create some really spicy 'out of tune' moments. The music was not as showy as the earlier works, but very expressive.

Podger and Swiatkiewicz finished the first half with a more familiar work, Corelli's La Follia sonata from his Opus 5 set, the most published and performed set of violin sonatas of the period. It was familiar but fascinating. Podger and Swiatkiewicz had a lovely freedom in their approach to the music, not constrained by the music's reputation, with the result that it sounded newly minted. The piece moved from the elegance of the opening, through contrasting moments of showing off and quiet elegance, to the sheer craziness of the final variations. On the one level this is a complete digest of violin techniques of the period, and as such a challenge to the performer, but Corelli makes it more than this and allows room for personality too, and here Podger and Swiatkiewicz gave us that in spades.

With the second half we moved into the 18th century, and Swiatkiewicz changed harpsichords, moving to a bigger, two manual French style one and Podger changed her bow. Vivaldi's Opus 2 sonatas are quite early, but we can hear him moving out from under Corelli's influence. The opening Prelude a Capriccio was free and suitably capricious, and the sections that followed alternated the graceful, the free and the perky so that the graceful Adagio was followed by a perky final Giga allegro. there were some showy moments but also a great deal of character.

Geminiani's Violin sonata in D minor was published in 1739, well after the composer arrived in London in 1714. Here, the sonata structure has settled into the familiar four movements, and the alternation of slow and fast has turned into Largo, Allegro, Andante, Allegro.  The opening movement has some really interesting harmonic moments alongside the improvisatory violin writing, but once past this the music was more formally structured and less free. There was still a real exploration of what was possible on the violin. The Andante had a lovely, slowly unfolding line, followed by a fast and furious Allegro with lot of string crossing.

The two solo harpsichord pieces by Geminiani, Tendrement in A minor and Vivement in A, both from Pieces de clavecin, were attractively lyrical with a lovely combination of mobile harpsichord texture and lyrical line, and the second had an attractive quirkiness to it too.

Finally we heard Veracini's Sonata No. 12 in D minor, again in a highly structured four movement format, Aria, Corrente, Ritornello, Giga. The rather formal first movement was highly fugal, but with some fine showier moments for the violin. The first two movements both started with the violin unaccompanied, a trick aimed perhaps at showing off Veracini's own style, technique and tone as he was a notable violinist. There was quite a snap to the rhythm in the Corrente, whilst the Ritornello started off in a free manner before becoming more formal. The perky final movement alternated furious moments with freer ones, all with cascades of notes.

Throughout the recital Rachel Podger introduced the various items, talking a bit about details, tunings and such like and bringing the music alive. This complemented the highly involving and engaging performances from Podger and Swiatkiewicz. Yes the showier moments were stunningly executed, but what counted was the character, immediacy and sheer engaging quality of the playing.

Featured recording:
Rachel Podger, Marcin Swiatkiewicz and Daniele Caminiti's recording of many of the works from this recital, Perla Barocca - Early Italian Masterpieces on Channel Classics is available from

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