Why did you choose to record these four Bach Violin Concertos?
The first two on the disc – the A minor, BWV 1041 and E major, BWV 1042 – are the staple diet of any violinist. It seemed natural to do them, and I’ve been planning to record them ever since I recorded the solo Partitas and Sonatas back in 1997. But it never seemed quite the right time until the development of my own festival, Brecon Baroque. The G minor Concerto, after BWV 1056, I’ve always loved. It’s the F minor Concerto for Harpsichord transcribed. The fourth choice was quite tricky but I went for the Harpsichord Concerto in A which is often played on the oboe d’amore.
How well do these transcriptions work for the violin?
It’s thought now, after quite a lot of scholarly research, that all these concertos we’ve received in harpsichord form were once conceived for melody instruments. It’s not far-fetched to try them out on the violin. The G minor is a regular candidate as it lies very well. The slow movement, a meditative aria with a pizzicato accompaniment, is to die for. The A major lies quite low in places – the first entry you come in lower than the ripieno strings and feel like a viola. But as it’s very mellifluous and melodic it felt wonderful. In a way though it’s not surprising that it works on the violin as well, as Bach always works. You can’t really beat his music.
You’ve been leader of the English Concert Orchestra and guest director of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. What’s it like to have your own ensemble?
It’s great to have my own group – Brecon Baroque – as you have so much input and get to decide what we might do next. It feels a bit like your baby I guess. There’s freedom and responsibility. It’s wonderful to play again with old friends too – viola player Jane Rogers, for example, I was at college with and she’s a musical soulmate of mine, and violone player Jan Spencer I’ve known since I was a student.
Can you tell me about this year’s festival?
It’s a four-day festival. It starts off with the Monteverdi Vespers in the Cathedral in Brecon, directed by my brother Julian Podger, a tenor. On Saturday there’s a Baroque ball, so you can get your tights and wigs out. It’s a hoot! There’s live music with a trio, and you get put through your steps by your dancing master. The last concert on Monday features the festival orchestra which consists of ex and current students of mine, students of my other half Tim Cronin, a violin and viola teacher in Brecon, and a few enthusiastic locals. They aren’t Baroque players, but they tune their instruments down and are ferociously coached by me. We do lots of dance-like exercises with the bow on the string to get the feel of the style.
How did you get the Bach bug?
I don’t want to be irreverent at all to the great man, but I’ve always felt very close to his music. With other Baroque composers I feel a similar thing, but it’s not as strong or deep as it is with Bach.
When I was younger I had a Polish teacher who told me I had to be very mature to play Bach, that he’d waited until he was 40. I remember looking at him with horror! Later when I was living in Germany in my teens, and I was dying to play Bach, my Russian teacher said I could. He gave me his heavily marked up copy with all the bowings and dynamics in red. I remember looking at his, and then at mine, which was a Barenreiter edition. Even if I didn’t know much about editions, instinctively I knew his wasn’t quite right. I played Bach’s First Partita – first from my copy to see what came naturally, and then from his copy with all the instructions, and I preferred mine! Which is maybe a little bit arrogant, but it made me think. I remember turning up to a lesson with another teacher and asking questions. They looked at me and said, oh no, you’ve been infected. With the authentic movement bug!
Rachel Podger’s recording of Bach Violin Concertos on Channel Classics (CCSSA 30910) is out now, and her Brecon Baroque festival takes place from 22-25 October 2010
Interview by Rebecca Franks