Recording of the Week Bach's Violin Concertos from Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque
The name Rachel Podger has become almost synonymous with the music of J S Bach. Her recordings of the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin as well as the accompanied Sonatas (with Trevor Pinnock on harpsichord) have both been phenomenally successful, critically acclaimed, and were both named First Choice when BBC's Building a Library programme looked at all available recordings of those works. It is perhaps somewhat surprising therefore that she has only now finally got round to recording Bach's Violin Concertos. They have just been released, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with Rachel last week about her new recording and I'd like to share some of her thoughts (as well as my own) with you this week.
The first and most immediately striking thing about this new recording is that the orchestra is made up of single strings (each part is played by just one player rather than a whole section of players). She is not the first violinist to have recorded the concertos this way (both Monica Huggett and Viktoria Mullova have previously done so) and while you do lose a little in contrast between the soloist and the orchestra, these concertos aren't really written in the more typically 'classical' style that requires that contrast. Instead you benefit from much greater clarity in the tutti lines and a more equal interplay between the soloist and the other players. Particularly in the outer movements where there are things like contrapuntal imitation and fugal entries, the solo violin part is often written like just one of the orchestral parts and so Rachel's more chamber-like approach sounds fantastically appropriate and vividly exciting.
Rachel was keen to point out that there is also historical evidence of the concertos being performed this way since Bach's time. Bach was director of the Collegium musicum in Leipzig (a student musical society) and this group gave twice weekly two-hour concerts at Zimmerman's Coffeehouse. Bach wrote a number of harpsichord concertos specifically for concerts here but with limited space there is a good chance that these (and other concertos) would frequently have been performed by just single players all grouped around Bach on the harpsichord in the middle.
While the outer movements in Bach's Concertos generally rush along with great spring and bounce, the slow movements are typically much more tender and meditative, often with the orchestra providing a more typical accompanying role while the solo violin floats over the top. I suppose it is here that you maybe slightly miss the more dreamlike bed of sound that you can get from a fuller orchestra. Partly as a result of this, and partly through stylistic choice, Rachel's tempos for the middle movements are generally slightly faster than what you are probably used to. She was keen to point out that in the A minor Concerto it is marked Andante, not Adagio and that this movement is often performed too slowly. I'd agree with her on that, but personally feel she has maybe gone slightly too far the other way in this concerto and some of the others, and you maybe don't get quite enough sense of repose and reflection before launching into the faster final movements, but that is a minor personal quibble and shouldn't in any way put you off these terrific performances.
The six players who accompany Rachel here (and contribute so much to the success of this recording) go under the name Brecon Baroque. The group was founded by Rachel in 2007 and form the backbone of her annual Brecon Baroque Festival which takes place each year at the end of October (full details here). It is a dynamic flexible ensemble and, as you can clearly hear on this recording, comprises some of the world's most outstanding period-instrument specialists.
Channel Classics have made a short video trailer for you, which I've put on the website via the link below. It is a little long-winded, and not brilliantly put-together, but do stick with it as you get to hear the whole of last movement of the E major Concerto towards the end.
Rachel Podger (violin/director), Brecon Baroque
Available Format: SACD