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Rachel Podger

Beguiling Baroque
Friday 3rd March, 2023

A one-person show of any kind - a one-hander play, stand-up comedy, a solo concert - sounds like a nerve-wracking undertaking.  If you have the formidable violin technique and easy communication skills of Rachel Podger, there is nothing to fear.  The capacity Music Nairn audience was spellbound by her playing and by her lucid explanation of the world of the Baroque violin - and in a certain sense she wasn't alone onstage.  Her 1739 Pesarini violin, 're-Baroqued' from its modernised state, was clearly also a bit of a character.  A little recalcitrant to start with, it settled into the music, and it was magical to realise that this venerable instrument was actively responding to its player, the venue and to us, its audience.

The programme entitled Tutta Sola featured music for solo violin which provides a context for J S Bach's violin works, and the concert opened with a Partita by the 18th century Austrian composer Johann Joseph Vilsmayr.  A suite of short dances alternating with airs, this charming music combined courtly formality with a more earthy vein of folk music.  Combining similar short movements from two sources, as would have been the custom in the 17th and 18th centuries, Podger next juxtaposed music by the Portuguese violinist/composer Lopez Noguiera with movements from the 17th-century Klagenfurt Manuscript, composed for and probably by nuns.

I have to admit to some reservations about the speculative adaptation by Podger and Chad Kelly of the Bach Toccata and Fugue BWV 565, which concluded the first half.  Very familiar as an organ blockbuster, it was hard to imagine this 'big music' starting out life as a piece for solo violin.  However, if we perhaps missed the huge 'pile-up' chords in the opening Toccata, the Fugue proved much more convincing - knowing Bach's penchant for recycling music, it is indeed plausible that this music began life as a piece for solo violin, or that Bach would have sanctioned the Podger/Chad arrangement.

A beautifully contemplative Fantasia by Nicolo Matteis was fruitfully juxtaposed with a modern Phantasia by Chad Kelly, which referenced Bach, Covid and plainchant in an musical exploration, to which Podger also made a beguiling vocal contribution.  Combining with the barely audible contented moaning of a guide-dog in the front row, we witnessed a unique trio account of this solo music!  Indeed, the uniqueness of each live performance was something, which Podger emphasised, and the spontaneity of her interpretation and ornamentation, fresh every evening, is one of the major strengths of her authentic approach.  A sparkling Sonata by the virtuoso Tartini brought us to the music of Johann Paul Westhoff, who graced the 18th-century musical crucible of Dresden, before moving to Weimar and the orbit of the young J S Bach.  His Suite had considerable profundity and gravitas, worthy of comparison with Bach's solo violin music, and suggesting an eloquent Bach encore to round off the evening.  However, especially for her Scottish mini-tour, before that Rachel Podger had put together a suite of 'scotch' tunes from 18th-century sources, including Playford's Dancing Master.  An evening, which might perhaps have been dryly academic, proved to be the opposite - involving, thoroughly engaging and wonderfully entertaining!

Reviewed by: D James Ross

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