Monday 28 June 2021

Talking to us through the music: Rachel Podger in a programme of music for unaccompanied violin by Bach at Kings Place

Rachel Podger - Kings Place (Photo  Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)
Rachel Podger - Kings Place (Photo  Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)

Bach Music for unaccompanied violin; Rachel Podger; Kings Place

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 June 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Rachel Podger was wonderfully eloquent in a programme combining Bach's music for unaccompanied violin with a transcription of one of the cello suites

A woman, a violin, a full audience (socially-distanced) and the music of Bach. Violinist Rachel Podger opened Kings Place's Bach Weekend on Friday 25 June 2021 with a programme of Bach's unaccompanied instrumental music, the Sonata No. 2 in A minor for solo violin, BWV 1003, the Partita No. 2in D minor for solo violin BWV 1004 and in between them the Cello Suite No. 3 in C BWV 1009 transposed into G major for violin.

We are lucky that Bach's autograph for the Sonata and Partitas for solo violin survives, created in 1720 whilst Bach worked in Köthen where he wrote mainly instrumental and orchestral music for the court (as a Calvinist the Prince did not require elaborate sacred music). No autograph of the Cello Suites survives, but in the late 1720s Bach's wife wrote out a fine copy which has survived, though it leaves us uncertain of any date for the works

Rachel Podger - Kings Place (Photo  Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)
Rachel Podger - Kings Place
(Photo  Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)
We know that Bach, himself a fine violinist, also played this music on keyboard as well as transcribing one of the Cello Suites for lute. Working in this tradition, Rachel Podger played Cello Suite No. 3  on the violin, playing the music on the same strings as the cello, thus preserving the work's use of open-string resonances.

For the unaccompanied violin Sonata and Partitas both types of work are similar but the Partitas are based on a sequence of dances inspired by the French suite whereas the Sonatas are based on the Italian sonata form. So Sonata No. 2 began with a 'Grave' full of free-flowing phrases where Podger brought out the rhetorical aspects of the music, yet making it feel spiritual too.  A perky 'Fuga' followed, its character deriving perhaps from the remarkably short fugue subject. Bach's writing is wonderful inventive and Podger revelled in the music's varied character. Her performance had a lovely directness, for all the technical sophistication of her playing, with a strong sense of personality. The 'Andante' was intimate and expressive with a final 'Allegro' that had a lovely insouciant feel to it yet combined with immense musicality.

Playing the Cello Suite No. 3 on the violin brings a different perspective to the music, textures are lighter, string crossing less strenuous; we were seeing a familiar friend from a new angle. The 'Prelude' was a combination of freedom and formality, Podger described it as 'looking into Bach's musical mind'. What follows is a sequence of dance movements and whilst Podger never lost sight of the underlying dance forms she gave each movement a strong rhetorical sense too. The 'Allemande' was surprisingly lively whilst there was an elegance to the way Podger made the figurations in the 'Courante' flow naturally. After two such engaging movements the 'Sarabande' was thoughtful and intense with lively character returning with the two 'Bourees'. We wended with quite a serious and intent aspect, but invigorating too.

Finally, Partita No. 2. Though there is no prelude, this begins conventionally enough with a sequence of dances yet the concluding 'Ciaccona' is stupendous, on a far larger scale. It has been convincingly suggested that the movement is a tombeau for Bach's first wife, Maria Barbara (1684-1720), who died whilst Bach was on an extended trip with the Prince, his employer in Köthen. 

The 'Allemande'  was sober yet sonorous, full of light and shade. Podger brought a crisp intensity to the rhythms of the 'Corrente', giving it a particular character. For all the large chords in the 'Sarabande'  the overall feel was touching, whilst the 'Giga' was insouciantly joyful and very busy. With the 'Ciaccona' we entered a different atmosphere. Podger was grand but not too stately, presenting the music rather than any particular concept. There were some surprisingly intimate moments, the pure mage of Podger's way with the string crossing textures and, at the end, silence.

Bach: Ciaccona from Partita No. 2 - Rachel Podger - Kings Place (Photo  Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)
Bach: Ciaccona from Partita No. 2 - Rachel Podger - Kings Place
(Photo  Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)

Each piece was introduced from the stage by Podger and each work felt like an extension of this, the feeling of Rachel Podger talking to us through the music.

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