Interview with Rachel Podger

May 7, 2015, 3:14 PM · Violinist Rachel Podger, one of today's most-respected period performers, once had to hide her Baroque life from her modern-violin teachers and colleagues.

"I had to keep those worlds completely separate," she said, speaking to me in March while in California to play several concerts. This June she will return to the U.S. for all-Bach concerts with Masaaki Suzuki and Juilliard415 in Boston and New York.

"I just remember this attitude from the other violinists, that if you played Baroque violin, it was actually an admission that you couldn't play properly on your modern," Rachel said. "I remember walking through the school with these two cases, and people saying, 'Why have you got two?' and I could not bring myself to say, 'I've got a Baroque violin in there that I'm playing.' I'd just say, 'Oh, I'm trying out another violin.' I was ashamed. It was partly just me, but it was also the mentality at the time: that if you ended up playing a Baroque instrument, it was because you hadn't made it."

At this point, Podger has not only "made it" but she's also helped make it cool -- no one has to hide his or her Baroque fiddle case any more. Podger has been breaking ground in the Baroque movement ever since she was a student at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she studied with David Takeno and Micaela Comberti. She was still in school when she co-founded the well-known Palladian Ensemble and Florilegium Baroque chamber groups. This spring she released a recording of 12 Vivaldi Concertos called L'Estro Armonico with Brecon Baroque, a group she founded in conjunction her Brecon Baroque Festival in South Wales. She also teaches at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff and at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Rachel Podger
Rachel Podger. Photo by Jonas Sacks.

Born into a musical family, Rachel started playing the violin with a Suzuki program when she was five, starting at the same time as her brother, Julian, who was two years older. Both of her parents were amateur musicians -- her father had been a choral scholar at King's College Choir in Cambridge who played the piano; and her mother, who is German, also sang and played the cello.

"They made lots of music together at home, and it was very normal for us children to learn an instrument," Rachel said. "It would have been strange for us not to! Once Julian and I had advanced a little bit, it was very easy to do Baroque music because of the trio sonata formation: we'd have two violins, and my mother played the cello and my father played the piano."

At the time, her parents were singing in the Monteverdi Choir, directed by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, "and they were quite familiar with stylistic issues already, but it was just really about playing music together. We also had recorders; we used to play recorder quartets, and we'd sing together as well. So I got a very early experience of performing in that kind of relaxed environment, either in services or charity concerts at Easter or Christmas."

The family moved to Germany, and Rachel continued her violin studies, with many opportunities to play at school.

"Then I remember coming home one day, in the early '80s, and hearing a new record that my father had bought," Rachel said. "Having left England, they still followed John Eliot Gardiner's career, his latest releases." Gardiner had gone Baroque, and this was a revelation. "I remember hearing this Bach cantata -- I know exactly what it was, it was Christ lag in todesbanden. It's a really beautiful piece with a slow and rather lengthy beginning, just the strings. I remember thinking, 'Oh my goodness, this sounds so different! They're not playing with much vibrato, and the sound is really clear....' It felt like cool water, somehow. And it really impressed me, this sound of gut strings."

At the same time, Rachel was singing in a choir in the German town where they lived, Kassel. "The director of this choir was extremely into the whole performance practice idea," she said. The director talked about the Italian concept of messa di voce -- the shaping of the note, starting soft, growing to the middle of a long note and then receding again at the end. "That's one of those devices that was talked about a lot in the 16th century by Caccini, an Italian theorist, teacher, polymath. He also wrote a rather important treatise on performance practice of the time, which people would refer to a lot during the next century. It was all about how to use the voice, how it works naturally, how it resonates, and also about ornamentation, phrasing, and uses of harmony -- all those kinds of things that you would need to know about historic music."

"So this choir conductor was getting us to sing a little like this," Podger said. "As a result, I actually learned how to phrase, and a little about styles, from singing. In retrospect, it was a really good thing to do. When you learn that with the voice, you're learning physically, with your body -- you natural instrument, rather than learning it from scratch on an instrument that's not part of you. To transfer that onto the violin, was very natural."

"Of course, there was a time in the Baroque movement when people might have gotten a little bit carried away with 'messa di voce' -- this kind of swelling idea!" she laughed. People came to expect these perhaps exaggerated "sound bellies" from period performances. "It was just one of those things," she said. "It happens in various movements and revivals; people go to the extreme in one direction." The Baroque-style revival began around the 1950s, drawing on ideas first presented in a 1915 book by Arnold Dolmetsch, called The Interpretation of the Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Other early leaders of the movement were European conductors such as John Eliot Gardiner; Christopher Hogwood; Trevor Pinnock and Roger Norrington.

"These people who were really interested in this way of thinking historically about Baroque music and Renaissance Music -- early Baroque and also early Classical as well," Rachel said. "It was so exciting, a new discovery. And I think people just took things to the extreme a little, which kind of had to happen for it to develop."

Singing in the choir had made her more aware of this emerging movement, and it had also brought her in contact with instrumentalists who came to play with the choir. "There were a couple of violinists who came to stay at our house, and I just asked them loads of questions," she said. One even got out his Baroque violin and showed her a little bit about how to play it.

"I was extremely interested and intrigued by this, and I wanted to know more," she said. "So I started asking some questions."

And that's when the trouble began.

"My regular, modern teacher was Russian, and had he had a high work ethic," she said. In typical 20th-century fashion, students were to copy his fingerings and bowings into their music for pieces such as the Bach Sonatas and Partitas.

When Rachel was about 15, "I remember turning up to a lesson with him, having encountered this other way of thinking about things," she said. She had begun to think more critically and look more closely at the music, asking questions like, Is this a downbeat? An upbeat? Where is the emphasis, where is the phrase? What kind of figuration is this?

She took issue with a bowing in the Sarabande from Bach's third Partita: he wanted to start up-bow on the chord so to emphasize the second beat; she wanted to start down-bow because it was a downbeat.

"I remember asking questions in the lesson, and he really did not like that, at all!" she said. "He didn't like the kind of critical thought, independent thought. I remember then thinking, this is a real kind of clash! I didn't mean to upset him, it was just kind of coming out of me.

"Then my parents received a letter from him, that he couldn't teach me any more," she said. "I remember my mom saying to me, 'Tell me about what happened last lesson? And so I said, 'Oh, I just asked loads of questions and I didn't like the way that piece started on up-bow because it's a down beat.'"

"I was a little shocked, but I had my fingers lots of different pies, luckily, with choir, and I was leading the school orchestra and I was doing concertos with them," she said. "I was pretty involved and pretty busy, so it wasn't like my whole world fell to bits. I didn't have a teacher for a couple of months and then we found another teacher who was a little bit more open-minded and she didn't mind that I was doing all this Baroque stuff. I carried on with my normal modern studies and changed my technique slightly with her. She was just a very methodical, really good teacher, honing in on lefthand technique."

But the impression lasted -- "I kind of realized that this 'Baroque ideal' thing might not be the thing to talk about with teachers!" she laughed.

When she arrived at the Guildhall, she was more than ready to dive straight into Baroque studies. But even then, she was put off for a few years, as they didn't offer a Baroque course for undergraduates. So she found herself a Baroque instrument and set about finding opportunities to play it. "I didn't have lessons, but I started playing with other like-minded people in school," she said. That was when she co-founded the Palladian Ensemble.

She was still studying "modern" violin, but she found more sympathy for her Baroque leanings with her teacher David Takeno. "He was the most fantastic teacher," she said. "He wasn't just a violinist-teacher, but he was an all-around musical teacher. He knew a lot about everything and was always hungry for more information. When he realized that I was interested in all this stuff, he just asked questions. He got me to find out things, and that was a wonderful way for me to learn. Something would occur in the lesson, and he'd say, 'Well hey, how about that...?' He wouldn't even say, 'Go and find out about that and write that down and do your homework,' it would just kind of occur. I would go off to the library and find out and answer, and then I'd see him later that day and say, 'Hey look, I found this!' It was all very exciting, a wonderful time at the Guildhall."

While still officially studying "modern" violin, she had a chance to enter a Bach contest at school, and for her, this presented a conundrum.

"I remember talking to David, my teacher, saying, 'Should I do that on modern? Or should I do that on Baroque violin?' And he just said, 'Hmmm...'" she said. He wasn't the kind of teacher to tell her what to do. "I can't quite remember what he asked me in the lesson, but somehow he kind of made it obvious to me, you need to do what's best for you; do what you want to do. I do remember the day before, thinking, 'Should I do it on modern? On Baroque?' Everyone else was on modern."

She picked the Baroque violin, and they picked her as the winner.

"It was a victory for everyone," she said. "After that I, had some kind of recognition, which was nice. I wasn't particularly bothered about winning, but it was quite important for everyone else to see, 'There's someone who can actually play this thing! Perhaps you don't just pick it up when you're not doing so well on your Brahms Concerto or something.' You could see them turning their minds round."

Eventually, Rachel got what she's been wanting for so long: Baroque violin lessons, with Micaela Comberti. "She showed me all the things I needed to know, technically: how to manipulate a Baroque bow, how the bow shows you, how to hold it, the use of the first finger, how to do shapes, how to come out of the string how to go into the string, the use of the wrist, which is very much talked about in all the violin treatises -- Geminiani, Leopold Mozart," Rachel said. "And so yes, she was exactly what I needed."

Since that time, Rachel has played in many Baroque ensembles; besides the Palladian Ensemble and Florilegium, she led The English Concert from 1997 to 2002 and has been a a guest director for many ensembles around the world. She has made numerous recordings (you can find a full list here) with a few recent ones including Perla Barocca (2014); Bach's Double and Triple Concertos (2013); Guardian Angel (2013); and Bach: Complete Sonatas & Partitas for Violin Solo (2002).

Rachel plays on a 1739 violin made by Pesarinius, a student of Stradivari. The violin had been modernized when she found it at a London violin shop about 17 years ago, so she had to have it "Baroqued" -- the neck was replaced, the bass bar shortened, the fingerboard shortened, a new bridge made, etc. She uses a Baroque-style bow by the late modern French maker, René-William Groppe, who made a number of different styles of period bows for her.

She remembers one of the first bows she commissioned from Groppe -- she received it, but she just wasn't sure. "After two days, I rang him back and I said, 'Well, it's a really beautiful bow, but I'm finding it quite tricky to make it speak.' Then he said to me, 'Okay, that can happen. If it's a good bow, it will tell you how to approach it and play; it will show you what to do. So you just need to listen to what it's doing and you need to try and find a way to make that happen.' That's exactly what I did, and it was the best advice ever," she said. "He really knew what he was talking about; it completely showed me what to do, I just had to hold on in a completely different way from the bow I had before. This bow, you picked it up and it felt like it was alive. That's the bow I still play, and I absolutely adore it. I've recommended his bows to so many people, all of my students a lot of them have bows by him."

Her most recent project is all about Vivaldi; a recording with Brecon Baroque of the set of 12 concerti called L'Estro Armonico. "What's so striking about this collection is that it's just full of invention," she said. "They were published in 1711, so that's quite early on. He was in his 30s, and he a job at Ospedale della Pietà, a charitable institution, school for girls. He was music director there, and that gave him a lot of opportunity to try things out, he had to write music for them. So a lot of the music that he wrote is pedagogically sound and very approachable, figurations that you can relate to when you're learning -- rapid notes and then lots of interval leaps. They're always entertaining, these figurations. Then he'll also surprise you, as well; he uses the usual rhetorical devices, he does repetition and then he cuts it short and does a surprise, turns the corner at a kind of different moment when you don't expect it and things like that. It's really sparkly, and it's also really fun to play, I must say."

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May 7, 2015 at 11:26 PM · Laurie: Great interview! Love Rachel Podger; Her recording of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas is amazing and incredibly inspiring!

May 8, 2015 at 05:08 AM · Absolutely true.When I was at college the early music stuff was in it's embryonic phase and sometimes the students couldn't let on to their modern instrument teacher that they were doing it.



May 8, 2015 at 01:47 PM · Best interview ever! The most inspiring, questing and achieving classical fiddler around today, I think. Her Bach is a model. She doesn't work them like most players. She just reveals - lets Mr B speak for himself.

May 10, 2015 at 08:44 AM · Rachel's scary good. Love her Bach solo and concertos albums.

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