Out of the Shadows

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Sheer enjoyment: Rachel Podger and Royal Northern Sinfonia's Bach to Bach

Bach to Bach - Rachel Podger, Royal Northern Sinfonia
Bach to Bach - Rachel Podger, Royal Northern Sinfonia
Bach to Bach
; Rachel Podger, Royal Northern Sinfonia; Sage Gateshead

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 June 2021
Rachel Podger's debut with the orchestra and their first concert this year with a live audience make for a vibrant mix

Baroque violinist Rachel Podger spent a week with the Royal Northern Sinfonia working on the music of Bach and the results were on display at the concert Bach to Bach at Sage Gateshead on Friday 11 June 2021 (and also on-line, which is how I watched the concert), both Podger's debut with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and the ensemble's first concert with a live audience this year. Rachel Podger directed the Royal Northern Sinfonia from the violin in the sonata from Bach's Cantata BWV31 Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubiliert!, Violin Concerto in A minor BWV1041, and Orchestral Suite No. 3.

This was a modern-instrument chamber orchestra but fielding just 14 strings, who were playing with gut strings and seemed to be making such adjustments as using minimal vibrato. The sound quality was warm yet lithe, with a noticeable emphasis on articulation and phrasing.

We began with the exuberant sonata from Bach's Cantata BW31 which was written for Easter, a bright and brilliant start to the evening. For Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, Podger moved to the piccolo violin, playing a mid-18th century instrument borrowed from the collection of the Royal Academy of Music. The ebullient opening movement featured fine high horn playing whilst Podger's piccolo violin both added brightness to the violin line and engaged in some lively dialogues with the main violin section. The slow movement featured some superbly rhapsodic oboes playing, echoed by Podger on the piccolo violin. The third movement was taken at quite a fast tempo and brought the horns back in hunting guise, still featuring Bach's high writing (lacking valves, both Baroque horns and trumpets typically played high as otherwise, owing to the way the harmonic series works, they would be restricted to tonic and dominant notes) and there was a terrific moment when Podger's sweet toned violin was contrasted against the horns. This movement has a sequence which interlaces a minuet with two trios and a polacca, so we had a stylish woodwind trio, then scurrying strings and then horns with the oboes playing the bass line. Inventive stuff, all engagingly and vibrantly played.

Bach's Brandenburg Concertos were written as as presentation for Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, most are based on pre-existing material which Bach wrote whilst kapellmeister at Köthen. Both the Violin Concerto in A minor and Orchestral Suite No. 3 probably also have their origins in music Bach wrote for the court at Köthen where instrumental music predominated (as the Calvinist ruling prince did not require Bach to write sacred music and the court had a fine instrumental ensemble), though they written out in its present form by Bach and his pupils in the 1730s when he was creating performance material for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum.

The Violin Concerto in A began in fine style with a strong sense of colour and articulation from the strings. When Podger's solo line emerged from the tutti passages we could appreciate the lovely sweet tone and command of style, as well as the way she emerged from and receded into the ensemble. In the slow movement her expressive line was supported by characterful playing from the orchestra and I loved the way she made the violin's more florid solo passages a stylish part of the solo line rather than using them for show for its own sake. We ended with a dancing finale, full of vibrant vigour, all energy and life.

The Orchestral Suite brought the wind and brass back to the stage and I enjoyed the orchestra's strong, lithe sound and definite sense of presence. The famous Air benefitted from a fine attention to phrasing and articulation whilst the Gavottes were by turns robust, and fast and furious, with a spirited Bouree  leading to a terrific Gigue. Throughout I felt the players' sheer sense of enjoyment at making music together and a special mention for the highly sympathetic high trumpet playing.

This was an event in many ways and Rachel Podger's partnership with the orchestra seems to have paid dividend.

The Royal Northern Sinfonia's concert on 25 June 2021 is another event, as Dinis Sousa conducts the orchestra for the first time since being named Principal Conductor Designate.



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