The Artful Podger

I took a break from my Chaconne adventure for adventure of another kind; my (mostly) annual sailing trip with the LaTrappe Creek Ecological and Historical Society. This oddly-named group had been sailing for nearly 50 years and my first trip was 15 years ago. Our destination this year was the eastern part of Long Island Sound, and we had good winds and fair weather.

Spending a week on a sailboat is not conducive to good nail care so I trimmed them off before I left—another advantage of artificial nails—and didn’t think much about music or the Chaconne, aside from a few long stretches at the helm when I would rehearse passages in my mind. I returned home rested and ready to dive back in.

In a happy coincidence, the phenomenal British violinist Rachel Podger gave a recital at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts the weekend I returned, and the concluding work on her solo program was Bach’s D minor partita. I really admire her recording of the piece and was happy to have the chance to see and hear her play it in person.

Her program was all music for unaccompanied violin: a transcription of Bach’s 2nd cello suite, a passacaglia by Biber, a sonata by Tartini, a selection of English ayres, and the partita. The Biber work predates the Bach partita by a couple of decades and in some ways prefigures the Chaconne; I’m curious to know if Bach had a copy of that work or would have heard it play. In general, though, the program was survey of the state of unaccompanied violin music at the time of Bach’s composition of his sonatas and partitas, and provided great musical context for the Chaconne which was, of course, the final thing on the program.

I don’t often go to a concert with the idea that I am going to listen for particular things, and am content to listen with open ears and an open mind. But having immersed myself in this work for months and still facing some fundamental questions about its interpretations I was eager to hear how Podger handled certain things. Moreover, this was my first experience of hearing the partita played live by any violinist.

Podger is technically superb and highly musical. She also has an engaging stage presence, often looking out at the audience with a raised eyebrow as if to say “Did you hear what I did there?” She plays with a Baroque violin bow, which is shorter and more arched than a standard bow, and it gives a lighter sound. I’m not adept enough at recognizing the differences in violins to say much about her instrument, although it didn’t seem to me to have the shorter neck associated with “authentic” Baroque-style fiddles.

As I said, I was listening for some specific things. First of all, I was curious about the tempo she would choose and how much she might vary it from variation to variation. Judging from the second hand of my watch she played at about 60 beats per minutes, and the pulse stayed quite consistent throughout. She did not use much rubato (i.e. flexibility of the beat). It was hardly a “metronomic” performance, but she didn’t speed up in the scale passages or slow down for the “big” passages.

The second thing I was listening for was whether or not she “Frenchified” the rhythm of the dotted quarter-note/eighth-note figure (as discussed in this post). She did not. There was perhaps a little separation and shortening of the eighth note to give it a little snap, but it was subtle. 

Overall her treatment of the piece was light, with great transparency so that the different voices could emerge. For me it lacked a certain degree of emotional depth or drama; while such characteristics may not be part of an authentic performance, they are qualities that I want to express in my performance of the work.

One final thing that struck me was that the parts of the piece that sound difficult on the violin (the chords and double-stop passages) sound easy on the guitar, while the parts that sound really easy on the violin (the scales) sound harder on the guitar. It’s just one more way in which the piece becomes a different thing when moved from one instrument to another.

A Program Note: Great Performances on PBS is currently running a series called “Now Hear This” with the conductor and violinist Scott Yoo. The first episode, called The Riddle of Bach, explores the solo violin works and is well worth watching. You can find it online or on your local PBS station.

3 thoughts on “The Artful Podger

    • It’s an interesting contrast with the chaconne. The two forms have a lot in common, and both pieces stretch the solo violinist technically. But the Biber is more obviously a set of discrete variations and this is reinforced by the fact that the ground bass appears fairly consistently in each one. It doesn’t have the chaconne’s sense of grand construction. I think Podger’s renditions render the two pieces more similarly since, as I said in my post, she doesn’t really highlight the dramatic possibilities of Bach’s piece the way a Heifitz or Perlman might.

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  1. Thanks for your reply. Podger’s recording of the Chaconne strikes me as beautifully played with a sure sense of rhythm, but a bit lacking in gravitas, as you say.
    I like Alice Pierot’s recording of the Biber a lot.

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