Washington Classical Review » Blog Archive » Podger offers a stellar concertmaster program at the Library of Congress

Rachel Podger performed at the Library of Congress on Tuesday night. Photo: Therese Pewal

Rachel Podger made one of Bach’s finest recordings of solo violin works over twenty years ago. Since then, the British violinist has explored the ancillary repertoire for solo violin, including arrangements of Bach pieces for other solo instruments. She performed a selection from her new album, a survey of the solo violin works of the pre-Bach generation of composers, at the Library of Congress on Tuesday evening.

Podger played most of the program on his 1739 Pesarinius violin, made in Genoa by Antonio Pezarini, a student of Stradivari. After finding the instrument in a London shop, she had its modern update canceled, returning it to its baroque state: a new neck and bridge, as well as a shorter bass bar and fingerboard. As usual, she used a baroque-style bow on mostly gut strings, with only the lowest pitch being a wound composite gut string.

His playing sounded just as delicious live as it did on recording. Unlike his last visit to Washington, as soloist for the English Concert at the Library of Congress in 2010, the clarity, warmth and musicality of his sound did not distract. Few musicians could demand such full attention in such a program dominated largely by obscurities and tell it with such understated charm and intelligence.

Podger’s investigation began with a few selections from Selected Preludes and Volentaries by John Walsh, a collection of short and lively solo pieces that show the state of the violin in the first decade of the 18th century, in London and elsewhere. The concert opened with a Prelude in A major by Nicola Cosimi, a Roman violinist based in London. Podger balanced his series with different moods, moving from double strings to more lyrical passages, with exquisite intonation.

Other pieces in the Walsh collection highlighted different strengths in his playing. Corelli’s Prelude in D major was a brilliant study in flashy arpeggios, while Carlo Ambrogio Lonati’s Prelude in D minor was more intense and melodic. . Purcell’s Prelude in G minor was as inventive as it was brief, enlivened at times by Podger’s addition of vibrato as an expressive device, which was notable for its essentially vibrato-free style.

The first substantial work on the program was Johann Joseph Vilsmayr’s Partita No. 6, the last of six solo violin suites in his 1715 collection. Artificiosus Concentus pro camera. Vilsmayr, a violinist who studied with Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber in Salzburg, achieved a polyphonic style by accompanying himself with a kind of bass line. Ten short movements all arose in different ways: the flowery ornamentation of the Prelude or the playful double stops of the Aria con Variazioni.

Podger did something sensational with the eighth movement, a sublimely introspective Aria that she rendered with luscious delicacy. Graciously receiving preemptive applause from the audience, Podger then outdid herself in the ninth movement, a comedic jig with an echo effect, which she turned away from the audience to create, her long hair flying around her. A shorter Fantasia in C minor, by Nicola Matteis the Younger, later provided a beautiful and mournful contrast.

Johann Paul von Westhoff, violinist at the Hofkapelle in Dresden, was one of the first composers of music for solo violin. His Suite in A major, from 1683, featured Podger’s incredible ease in the multi-string passages of the Prelude, as well as spirited double strings in the Allemande. This five-movement set reveled in contrapuntal complexity, but the pensive Sarabande stood out for its soulful melancholy.

Harpsichordist Chad Kelly has made a violin arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, originally for organ. Podger played the Toccata with expressive desire, avoiding ornamentation on the first two statements of his famous overture. The Fugue, taken with measured solemnity, was a prodigious tour de force.

Kelly has also composed a new work titled Phantasia, commissioned by Podger as a complement to this program of baroque music for solo violin. In the first of the two sections, Podger has linked many allusions to the early violin pieces, with sections in running notes or in variegated figures, often endowed with modern and dissonant twists. In the second, more striking section, Podger weaved ostinato patterns on his violin with the third line of his voice, singing over a wordless vowel. This atmospheric effect calms mesmerized by its song-like simplicity.

For the last piece on the program, Podger revisited his transcription of Bach’s Partita for solo flute, recorded a few years ago. She performed this demanding work on a different instrument, the 1654 Amati “Broookings” in the Library’s collection. This concert was the debut of this spectacular violin, recently restored to its baroque state. She played the Partita a little more slowly and cautiously, feeling the unknown instrument.

In his hands, the Amati sounded glorious, with a high golden note that terminated the Allemande to the poignant luxuriance of the Sarabande. Podger, seeming to find his rhythm, added bold ornamentation to the repetitions of the Corrente and Bourrée Anglaise. Sticking to the Amati, Podger offered three short encores, dances notated in the Nogueira manuscript, found in Portugal, just the right digestive after an extraordinary meal. Perhaps a new Podger recording of Bach’s sonatas and solo partitas, on this extraordinary violin, is in order.

Most of Washington is glued to the returns on election night, which was likely to blame for the relatively small audience in the sublime acoustics of the Coolidge Auditorium. While listeners are delighted with the return of the Library’s free concert series, one of the city’s musical gems, the move to a new general seating system has been less popular.

The Smetana Trio plays music by Rachmaninoff, Martinů and Smetana 8 p.m. Wednesday. loc.gov

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