My latest recording project is called Grandissima Gravita and features music by Veracini, Pisendel, Tartini and Vivaldi, four violinist composers with a string of fun connections between them.

Francesco Maria Veracini (1690 – 1768) was well known for playing with very long strokes. He had a long bow anyway, but when he composed he used to write a lot of notes under long slurs. At first you think, “Gosh, that’s tricky to do, especially in the slow movements. What’s going on here? Why does he want that?” But once you get into the spirit of what he might be after it’s really effective – even if it’s peculiar. I think Veracini must have been quite a strange person.

Rachel Podger, Brecon BaroqueRachel Podger and Brecon Baroque. Photo © Brecon Baroque

The story goes that Giuseppe Tartini (1692 – 1770) heard Veracini play with this incredible bow control. Tartini, who was always a bit of a showman, thought, “Oh my goodness, I need to be able to do that.” So he locked himself away to practise for a few years. I think that’s brilliant!

Sometime earlier, Veracini had met Johann Georg Pisendel (1688 – 1755) in Dresden where Pisendel played in the court orchestra. He was such a brilliant violinist that some scholars think Bach must have known him and might have written the solo sonatas and partitas for him, which is a nice thought isn’t it? Apparently there was some heated argument with Pisendel and in order to get away Veracini jumped from a first floor balcony and hurt his foot. People said he walked with a limp ever afterwards.

Later on, Pisendel went to study with Vivaldi who wrote violin concertos and also sonatas for him. The Pisendel sonata we play is actually attributed to Bach and has a BWV number. The first movement is incredibly chromatic and quite convoluted. When you hear it you think, “That’s Bach taken too far. It’s too much of a good thing!” It’s in C Minor, which is a hard key and it doesn’t lie very well under the fingers at all, but Pisendel makes it such fun to work with. The slow movement, the Affettuoso, is a really gorgeous ‘aria’ that could come straight out of a Bach cantata. It all ends with a very gallant movement in 3/8, and that’s the one where you really think, “Ooh, that doesn’t sound like Bach.” To me, it does really sound like Pisendel, though. It’s a Rondo, forward looking in style and very elegant.

The Tartini is the A Minor Sonata from his Opus 2 and it’s not often played. It’s a beautiful piece, a bit like a ballad. The first movement is long with two halves that repeat and it’s so romantic sounding that it feels like a lovely Italian tenor is serenading you outside your window! (I’ve often played it as an encore after something wild and furious at the end of a concert.) And then there are two fast movements that are really fun and wacky, quite folky and kind of foot stamping.

I think that Tartini is quite underrated, actually. He wrote around 30 solo sonatas for violin and though some have bass lines, a lot of them don’t. In a letter to a friend, Tartini says, “You could play them with a basso continuo, but I prefer to play them without because then I can do what I like!” That says quite a lot about him, doesn’t it?

I can now say that my Four Seasons is also in the can. It comes out in 2018 and features three other concertos as well. There’s one called Il Riposo per il Santo Natale that’s all about Christmas. There’s no keyboard and it’s all muted and very, very high, so it’s all twinkly and sparkly – you can really see the baubles on the tree. Then there’s another called L’Amoroso, which Vivaldi wrote for one of his students at the Pietà (where there were stories that he liked some of the students a bit too much). The last concerto is Il Grosso Mogul, which is a lengthy piece because of the extravagant cadenzas Vivaldi wrote to be included. In the last movement you have a five-minute cadenza!

Normally I have no problem playing under a conductor, but these pieces aren’t that huge so I’m leading from the violin. It makes people play in a different way by encouraging more of a chamber music approach where we all spark off each other. And that’s what I always prefer.

Rachel Podger’s Grandissima Gravita is out on Channel Classics and is reviewed in the January/February 2018 issue of Limelight. Her Four Seasons will be released in a few months.