Arts & Events

Rachel Podger & Philharmonia Baroque Perform Baroque Concertos

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 11, 2016 - 04:41:00 PM

Hailed as the “Queen of the Baroque Violin,” English violinist Rachel Podger returned to the Bay Area to lead a series of concerts with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. I caught the Friday evening concert at Herbst Hall in San Francisco. The program chosen by Ms. Podger was an interesting one, featuring some lesser-known works as well as a few chestnuts. Opening the concert was the Ouverture No. 6 in G minor by Francesco Maria Veracini. This, of course, is one of the lesser-known works. Veracini, a native of Florence, performed throughout Europe as a violinist in the early 18th century. Younger than Antonio Vivaldi, Veracini made his reputation as a violin virtuoso. Reportedly, Giuseppe Tartini, himself a great violinist and an influential teacher of violin, once heard Veracini perform and was so taken with Veracini’s style that Tartini sequestered himself in Ancona until he had mastered a new technique.  

Veracini’s Ouverture No. 6 in G minor opens with a dialogue between a trio of two oboes and bassoon alternating with strings. Philharmonia Baroque’s oboists, March Schachman and Gonzalo Ruiz, were outstanding in this work, as was bassoonist Andrew Schwartz. Needless to say, Rachel Podger was also outstanding as solo violinist. The Largo offered a serene dialogue between the strings and the wind trio, with a walking bass continuo. The third movement, marked Allegro, offered puzzling passages of staccato repeated notes, and it ended strangely with repetitions of the final cadence. A concluding minuet brought this work to a strange, not altogether satisfying, conclusion. 

Next on the program was Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in D Major, one of his explorations of the human psyche, this one called “L’inquietudine,” or restless anxiety. As one might expect, this work opens with suggestions of turmoil. The music is agitated, including a fierce solo superbly played here by Rachel Podger. The Largo offers a French style of dotted rhythms combined with swooping violin passages, and although the tempo here is slow, anxiety remains the dominant mood. The final movement features difficult passagework by the solo violinist, accompanied by the basso continuo.  

Following this work was J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060. We know that Bach wrote a concerto for these two instruments; but, unfortunately, it is lost. Bach himself transcribed this now-lost work for two harpsichords. Recently, musicologists have re-transcribed the harpsichord version backwards to the version for violin and oboe. Here, Rachel Podger on violin and Gonzalo Ruiz on oboe gave an outstanding rendition of this concerto. The second and third movements offered wonderful dialogue between the two solo instruments, and here Podger and Ruiz were at their best, making this work stand out in a program already full of wonders. 

After intermission, Podger and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra returned to perform Giuseppe Tartini’s lovely Concerto for Violin in A Major. Tartini, who taught violin in Padova (Padua) for 44 years, here writes brilliant polyphonic passages full of rich harmonics. The cello offers burnished accompaniment to the solo violin. The slow Adagio is like an aria in which a heroine decries her fate, while the tutti fill the role of a Greek chorus. My only reservation about Rachel Podger’s playing came here in the pianissimo passages, where she played so very softly on her period instrument (a Pesarinius, 1739 from Genoa), that the sound was almost inaudible. (On my CD recording, Ariadne Daskalakis also plays these passages softly on her period violin, but the acoustic engineering by Naxos Records renders them full of immediacy.)  

Following this Tartini concerto was Vivaldi’s Chamber Concerto in G minor, a work scored for bassoon, recorder, oboe, and violin with an ensemble of basso continuo. Here the violin is not foremost. Pride of place in this concerto is shared among the bassoon, recorder, oboe and violin. Bassoonist Andrew Schwartz had a field day with his music in this work, as did March Schachman on oboe and Hanneke van Proosdij on recorder. (Incidentally, the program notes failed to identify who played recorder in this piece, and I had to ask Lisa Grodin afterwards to make sure I had correctly identified Hanneke van Proosdij as the performer on recorder.)  

The final work on the program was J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BMZ 1066. This is French-inspired music, full of dance movements made popular at the court of Louis XIV in Versailles. Noteworthy is a rare Italian dance movement, the only Forlane Bach ever wrote. This is a rustic dance from the Friuli region near Venice. This Orchestral Suite has become a favorite of contemporary audiences. All in all, this concert put together by Rachel Podger offered an interesting overview of the violin concertos written in the Baroque period in Northern Italy and Germany, with influences coming from France.