Rachel Podger Finds Second Calling in Early Music
by James Reel
If English violinist Rachel Podger turned heads in 1999 with her debut solo recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, she induced whiplash with her exhilarating 2004 Channel Classics recording of Vivaldi’s La Stravaganza. Critics seemed stunned by Podger’s ability to make the music sound so fresh, vital, and new.
But this wasn’t much of a surprise to people who have been following Podger’s career since the early 1990s. That’s when, fresh out of England’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Podger began recording and touring as a member of the Palladian Ensemble, a somewhat folksy-sounding early-music group. Before long, harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock heard her in concert.
“I thought, wow, this is pretty good stuff,” Pinnock recalls. He invited Podger to read through some music with him, and after a few sessions was sufficiently impressed to bring her into the English Concert, where she was concertmaster from 1997 to 2002.
“I didn’t have any orchestral training in Baroque violin,” Podger admits. “I just learned doing it, spending many years playing second violin to Pavlo Beznosiuk. I was very green.”
“She’s a stunning musician,” counters Pinnock. “She has a wonderful fluency in the way that she plays the instrument. It’s a very natural approach, which is so lovely because her being and her music seem so well connected. But this natural approach is underpinned by a tremendous sense of the structure and architecture of the music. I think it’s that sense of structure which gives her the amount of freedom that she has.”
She’s no musical anarchist, then, just someone who finds liberty within the natural laws of her universe.
In school, though, Podger had to enter that universe surreptitiously. She’d come up, like everyone else, on the modern violin, playing the standard mix of classical pieces. But she’d developed an interest in Baroque music as a child. Her family played Baroque music at home, and from ages eight to 19 she studied in Kassel, Germany (her mother is from Hamburg), and had ready access to Germany’s 18th-century musical heritage. She sang Bach cantatas in a church choir, and she remembers clearly that in 1978 her mother brought home a John Eliot Gardiner recording of a Bach cantata that gave young Rachel a start. “I said, ‘Why do they sound so different, so bare?’” she recalls. She was instantly fascinated by the sound of period instruments.
She played the usual range of violin music as a teenager, but by the time she turned 16 she was already interested in making a special study of Baroque music. She couldn’t find a teacher, though. Then, at 19, she enrolled at the Guildhall School to study with Pauline Scott and David Takeno. “I was dying to get my hands on a Baroque violin, but they wouldn’t let me,” she says. “It was treated as a secondary instrument. The first year they wanted you to get your technique under your belt on the modern instrument. I didn’t agree with that at all. I very, very slyly had a few lessons on the side with Michaela Comberti.
“But there was a stigma attached to the Baroque violin then—this was around 1988. You only picked it up if you weren’t so good on the modern violin. I was so embarrassed, I carried one case for each violin and I would hide one behind my back because I was self-conscious about playing Baroque violin.”
The embarrassment ended when she won a school competition as the only violinist playing Bach on a Baroque instrument. In 1990 she and three school friends formed the Palladian Ensemble; before long they won an international prize and got a recording contract with the Linn label.
“Around 1992 or 1993, I was getting very deep into it, getting busier and busier playing repertoire on the Baroque instrument,” she says. “I was still very much into the modern instrument, but that fizzled out because I was doing so much with the Baroque violin. I’ve always kept the door open for later repertoire, but at the moment I don’t even have a modern instrument.”
Actually, Podger is relieved not to have to switch back and forth between instruments. “It’s difficult to be good at both, because the muscle memory is so different,” she says. “You have to use different muscles, and now I get very fatigued playing a modern instrument. Sustaining through-phrases I always found difficult on a modern instrument. But my instinct has always told me to phrase classically, even in Brahms, so Baroque music comes very naturally to me. “I am where I belong.”
Podger’s first solo recording, of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, was a rather cheeky project for a young, not especially well-known violinist. “But it wasn’t my idea initially,” Podger protests. Ted Diehl of Channel Classics suggested it, she says. “I said to him, ‘You must be joking!’ I was scared, because the Polish teacher I had in my teens wouldn’t let me play Bach. I was dying to play one of the concertos, but he said, ‘You can’t do it until you’re 40. You must be very mature. There’s no way you can approach it earlier.’”
Obviously, Podger overcame that trauma and made an especially successful recording of the Bach solo works. Later she teamed with Pinnock to record Bach’s sonatas with harpsichord, as well as Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin en concerts.
“She’s a wonderful musical partner, strong-willed but very flexible,” says Pinnock. “She prepares everything meticulously, but that doesn’t mean she’s written down in immovable type exactly what has to be done. She’s always responsive to the music, so her music making is a constant, ongoing dialog between her and the music and her partners. That gives her the freedom to introduce improvisatory elements.”
Says Podger, who is now guest director of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, “I’m quite an instinctive player. If I suddenly have an idea that rings true, something that seems right in the context of what we’re creating, then I’ll go with it, but I also must be open to the possibility that it might not work. You must have that modesty; not every idea can be great. You find what you can in the score and in yourself in preparation, but when you make music with live people, it’s not just a reproduction of what’s on the page. You never know what’s going to happen. In the rehearsal, it could go any number of ways. We rehearse, we comment on what we’re doing, and we throw ideas about.
“No matter how I plan it, in the end it’s completely different.”
Podger also is a professor of Baroque violin at her alma mater, the Guildhall School. Rather than angrily vowing not to make her students feel as embarrassed about their instrument as she did, Podger is focusing on her more positive experiences at Guildhall. Her lessons with David Takeno particularly inspired her teaching technique. “He would ask me questions rather than tell me what to do,” she says. “That made me think and, guiding me into a certain way of thinking, provoked a different attitude. That was so impressive.
“And Michaela Comberti, who has passed away, showed me what Baroque bow technique is. She taught me the importance of flexibility of the fingers and how to produce a good sound.”
Now Podger is passing that information along to undergraduates as well as graduate students. Even so, she’s developed some sympathy for the professors who insisted that she wait before taking up the Baroque violin.
“You must have a solid technique first,” she insists. “Everyone comes first from the modern violin and has played Baroque music with that technique, so there’s some undoing to be done. But that’s much easier if the technique is solid. If not, you’ve got much more groundwork to do. Of course, in Geminiani’s time they didn’t play Tchaikovsky first, so I don’t think there should be a fixed point at which you may be allowed to start. It has to do with aptitude.
“If they have a big ability with the music, you can’t hold them back. That’s cruel.”
Podger’s schedule looks rather cruel during the first half of 2005. Not only is she maintaining her teaching schedule, but she is performing all over Europe and in select American venues. In January, her schedule called for a British tour playing double concertos by Vivaldi and Bach with the Academy of Ancient Music, and a visit to Santa Fe to play Bach sonatas with fortepianist Gary Cooper. In March she directs and solos with the group Musica Angelica in Los Angeles. Then some solo Bach, and in April she records a batch of concertos (Leclair, Handel, Pisendel, Vivaldi) with the Polish ensemble Arte dei Suonatori.
Somewhere along the line, she and Cooper will continue recording the sonatas of Mozart; the first volume in that series was released at the end of 2004.
“Mozart is a completely different style from Bach,” she says. “The writing is fairly simple in terms of decoration and expression, but it needs a completely different way of thinking. It’s more linear, in a way. Bach’s violin line needs to be very integrated into what is happening with the harmony. Mozart is more melody-based, and needs so much character to come off.
“I’m still learning that.”
Podger feels lucky to have grown up listening to historically informed performances of Baroque music on gut strings. While she admires the pioneering efforts of string players in the 1960s and ’70s, she notes that they were often contending with inadequate instruments and unreliable bows and strings. They were also still grappling with unfamiliar elements of Baroque style.
“Those older recordings can be beautiful,” she says, “but they can also sound dry and overdone in their phrasing, and the tempi and everything is extreme. People were taking everything literally and were taking some ideas out of context, not seeing the whole picture. Today, I’m seeing undergraduate string players who already know much more about this form of performance practice, and it doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore.”
Says Pinnock, “The thing that makes her so modern, in a right sense, is she’s assimilated the music so strongly that the historical approach has become an absolutely natural part of her music making. She breathes the music.
“I find it difficult not to talk about Rachel in a string of superlatives,” he adds. “That’s quite intentional. I think her music says more about her than I ever could.”