Talk about a breath of fresh air. Half an hour on the phone with Rachel Podger is enough to lift the spirits of the most jaded of journalists. Queen of the baroque violin, festival founder and curator, recording artist par excellence and a devoted educationalist, she could be excused if she flagged for just a moment. As I catch her, she’s just driven across London with a car full of orchestral parts needed urgently for her acclaimed Brecon Baroque Festival, but despite juggling a workload that could sink the Titanic, she sparkles with enthusiasm like a glass of good Prosecco.
Rachel Podger. Photo © Musica Viva
The good news for her fans down under, and the reason for my call, is that the violinist – whose website cheekily leads with an article proclaiming her to be “The Artful Podger” – is bringing not just her bubbly personality and immaculate bowing, but also the entire Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment back to Australia for a whirlwind national tour with Musica Viva.
Last heard on our shores in the late 1990s when she flew out with fellow Aussie Florilegium members Neal Peres Da Costa and Daniel Yeadon, their tours involved concerts and masterclasses from Brisbane to Perth. “We also played in some rather small places, some of them in the outback, which was amazing!” she recalls fondly. “At first, when we drove through, there seemed to be nothing there – so, it’s a desert – and then suddenly you’d see some buildings in the distance. Then this place suddenly appeared and there’d be a village hall. I’ll never forget one time the four of us had the harpsichord in the car and they all came out of the houses to see it. They were so hospitable and brought us cold drinks and cookies and things. Everywhere I went in Australia people were incredibly welcoming and interested and really taken with what we were doing, the repertoire and the instruments. I’ve got really good memories of Australia!”
This time around she will be playing the first and last of Mozart’s violin concertos, all five works written over a period of just a few years, and yet they represent a remarkable development in the form. “They are incredibly different, aren’t they?” she says. “If you didn’t know it, you’d think the first one might be by Haydn or by JC Bach possibly – it seems quite galant and a little bit more on the formulaic side. But it has amazing charm. It’s incredibly sweet and innocent and pure. Then you move on to number five, which feels a very mature piece that he could have written a lot later. When the violin comes in, it’s doing something completely different. It feels much more like a singer, more like an aria. You’re stating your presence in a completely different way.”
Of course, Podger plays with gut strings and a Classical bow – hers is by a living bow-maker by the name of Pieter Affortit and based on a bow from around 1780 – and embraces that period minimal vibrato style. “It gives Mozart a much cleaner sound, much clearer, sometimes rather piercing I think!” she laughs. “The articulation is probably crisper, but it can actually be more legato in some ways. There’s more contrast between all the different articulations. In a way, you have more of an expressive range up your sleeve when you’re playing with a period instrument, because the bow is elastic and obviously much lighter than the modern bow. It can express long lines and do cantabile for slow movements, but at the same time it can do light upbows for upbeats. I’ve found in the past with a modern bow I have to fight the weight in order to get some lightness into the sound. With a Classical bow, you don’t have to work so hard on those things – you have to work on other things!”
Rachel Podger. Photo © Theresa Pewal
To complement the Mozart, Podger has chosen Haydn’s relatively early Lamentation Symphony (his No 26), perhaps not one of his best-known works but one that shows a different side of the composer from the grand, bouncy Paris and London Symphonies. “I thought it would be good to have one in a minor key as well, because the Mozarts are both in major keys,” she explains. “It has a kind of sacred feel, this work. He wrote it in Easter Week, in 1768, and he incorporates this melody derived from an old plainsong. I thought it would be a really good contrast with the witty lightness of the Mozart. It’s rather more soul searching and serious, and already pushing at the edges of what you can express within the format of the early symphony.”
With its restless syncopations in the first movement, it counts as one of his Sturm un Drang works (literally storm and stress) but perhaps more Drang than Sturm, I suggest. “I guess there is some Sturm, but not so much in the Minuet or the Adagio, which have a lot of charm,” says Podger. “I think the Sturm is contained, but there’s definitely Drang, put it that way!”
A symphony by ‘The English Bach’ – Johann Christian – completes the programme, a definite rarity, but a composer whose lyrical charm and technical knowhow amply repay the listener. “JC Bach knew Mozart when Mozart came over to London,” Podger explains. “Mozart was about seven or eight, and apparently he would sit on JC Bach’s knee and they would improvise on the piano together. Mozart became very fond of his music and would incorporate quite a few of his themes in some of his piano concertos later on. While he was the youngest of Johann Sebastian Bach’s four composer sons, [musically] he was very well behaved and wouldn’t push his expression. All the movements of this symphony are in a minor key, and I thought that was pretty striking. It still has the gracefulness of the Rococo period, but again it has quite a lot of Drang, even though you also get this Empfindsamerstil – the ‘sensitive style’ – which was a colloquial term for these beautiful cantabile lines.”
Although she never played with them early on in her career – she was too busy leading Trevor Pinnock’s English Concert – Podger’s relationship with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment goes back to around 2003. “It’s a very friendly orchestra and very versatile, because they do so much with different directors and the repertoire spans centuries,” she tells me when I ask what brings her back to the OAE so often. “They can do anything, basically, from a small 17th-century programme to a huge symphony orchestra concert. I admire that kind of versatility. All of those different directors coming in keeps everything zesty and bubbling, because there are always new ideas coming in I guess. There’s quite a pool of players, so you don’t always see the same people, but the front desks are normally pretty much the same. I’m really looking forward to it!”
Rachel Podger. Photo © Musica Viva
For her Musica Viva tour, Podger will be leading the OAE from the violin, a relationship whose directness and flexibility she appreciates. “I have no problem playing with a conductor,” she points out, “but these pieces aren’t that huge. Of course there are wind parts and horn parts but it’s not such a large orchestra. It’s kind of chamber sized, if you can see it like that. I think it makes people play in a different way, actually, when they’re not watching a [conductor’s beat but just playing along with someone who’s out the front playing and bouncing around.”
“Obviously, I’m showing something!” she laughs, “But I think it encourages more of a chamber music approach with more initiative and more feeling. You can really communicate through the music and respond to each other and spark off each other. And that’s always what I prefer.”
When she’s not on the road, Podger is a regular in the recording studio and her relationship with the Dutch label Channel Classics goes back 20 years. Her latest disc, Grandissima Gravita – there’s a separate feature in December’s Limelight – juxtaposes music by Veracini, Pisendel, Tartini and Vivaldi and should be available after her Australian concerts. She’s also got her highly anticipated Four Seasons in the can at last – it should be available around March or April next year.
Signing off, I can’t help but admire Rachel Podger’s boundless enthusiasm for her music. It’s a joyous quality that she exudes from every pore, and one that is surprisingly rare these days. It’s also one that comes across loud and clear on her string of multi-award-winning CDs. Those who know her as audiophiles will doubtless be first in the queue to catch this remarkable musical personality live. Others, I’d suggest, should join the line. Now, if only someone could just bottle her…
Rachel Podger leads the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on tour across Australia for Musica Viva from November 9 – 21