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 Interview, Rachel Podger on Bach's Cello Suites

Rachel PodgerAt the end of April, my colleague Katherine reviewed Rachel Podger's new recording of the Bach Cello Suites as her Recording of the Week, noting among other things the gains and trade-offs that this unorthodox approach entails. I was curious to look a little more under the bonnet of this project, and Rachel was kind enough to share some of her thoughts over the phone...

Perhaps the most obvious question, and maybe one you’re tired of answering, is: What led you, a violinist, to record repertoire that’s usually performed on the cello?

It’s a perfectly legitimate question; it must seem rather crazy to a lot of people, especially cellists, who love these pieces and only know them in that incarnation. It’s something that hasn’t really been done before. We’re more used to hearing other pieces transcribed by Bach himself - the keyboard concerti, adaptations of violin concertos and the transcriptions for lute and the recycling of musical material in many of his Cantatas. And through the ages lots of composers have done the same thing - Busoni, Brahms and of course, and Mozart and Beethoven, who took some of the Well-Tempered Clavier and transcribed it for string quartets and quintets. The Mozart ones are particularly charming - I’ve played some of the versions for string trio. Mozart writes an introductory Adagio for each one, which sounds like Mozart but you can tell he’s trying not to sound like himself too much! And then each one is followed by a fugue - really fun to play as it puts contrapuncti from The Art of Fugue certainly in a lighter context.

So we are already used to transcriptions, just not of these particular suites. I took a look at all sorts of pieces by Bach; often I find myself warming up with different pieces, sometimes even bits of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I know the Cello Suites very well, having coached them quite often, so would just be playing them for fun. It occurred to me that actually that might be something that I could do in a concert. I wondered how it would go down - I remember the first time I played one of them, the iconic No. 1 which everyone knows of course, particularly the Prelude which even non-classical fans seem to be aware of as a piece of Baroque music. As it happened I was in Spain, and I was rather nervous because I was conscious of the tradition of Casals; playing this piece in Madrid I was quite aware that it might not be well received, even though the rest of the concert had been more conventional fare, with some Biber and Tartini. But the feedback was really positive! Obviously I have to take it at face value; they might have just been humouring me... But people seemed to find it refreshing to hear it that way, and in particular they felt that the pieces sounded a lot lighter when performed on the violin, with slightly faster tempi and so on.

I was rather encouraged by that, and when I put it to Channel Classics, Jonathan Freeman- Attwood and Jared Sacks were both interested and said I should go for it and do it right away. So it was an idea that was born out of knowing that it’s legitimate and okay to transcribe Bach, because he did it himself, but also from a sense of seeing the music as just music, rather than being bound to a specific instrument, which of course you can do with Bach. I’ve heard other Bach works treated in a similar way - some of the Contrapuncti from The Art of Fugue performed on saxophones, for instance - it’s still his music underneath, and it survives the process of adaptation in a way that the music of other composers might not do so well.

Although they’re obviously closely related instruments, the mechanics of what’s possible and effective on the violin and cello are in some ways different. Did the cello suites require much re-arranging in order to work on the violin, or were you able to adapt them almost “verbatim”?

It's essentially the same, shifted up by an octave and a fifth; you can play everything as it is, with a few exceptions. It was great to be able to study Anna Magdalena’s score to help resolve all the complicated questions about bowing and interpretation that you encounter when the original manuscript has been lost, and to also compare the different sources. The only problem really is No. 6, as you can imagine, as it was written for a five-stringed instrument. As far as we know, five-stringed violins didn’t exist at that time - at least, we don’t know of one. We do know that there were all sorts of other instruments and different sizes of violins; in violin bands in the seventeenth century they wouldn’t simply have had a violin, viola and cello but different sizes of each of those instruments. And players might not have been specifically violinists, but generalised string players capable of playing anything in that family. Some instruments from that time have survived and we know they’re used by Bach in his cantatas - likewise the viola d’amore, a member of the viol family - but as far as I know there was no five-string violin. Five-stringed violins have been used more recently, particularly in folk music where there are pieces with a constant drone underneath and the melody over the top.

This situation presented me with a bit of conundrum as to what to do. I did try out a five- stringed instrument I borrowed from a friend in Basel, but it didn’t quite work out; I found it was rather hard to play and | actually hurt my arm playing it because of the instrument’s bigger size, so to go for it with the same intensity was probably unwise. I then decided to play it on my own instrument, in the original key rather transposing it up a fifth (most of the piece is on the top four strings, which are equivalent to the strings of a violin), and then the notes on the C-string I played on a viola, and we patched them in! I was a bit concerned about whether it would work, but it was a lot of fun putting the jigsaw puzzle together.

When performing this suite I’d obviously have to put those notes up an octave, which would be a shame as some of the musical sequences would be lost - or I'd have to have a viola player there to play those C string bits. In fact I’ve already got someone lined up to do that in a concert, which could be very entertaining! In my mind No. 6 is the most incredibly uplifting piece, and I’m so glad I did it - there were moments when I thought maybe I should just get someone else to play it, but then I decided it would be silly not to complete the set and there ended up being more pros than cons. Especially after No. 5, which is dark in mood, particularly the fugue, to follow it with the luminous No. 6 which is so bright and shiny - such a relief after the beautiful involving darkness of No. 5 which almost has an earthy character. Following that with the sudden light that shines through in No. 6, with its clarity in resonance, the way it’s written and the spacing of the chords is really an amazing experience. From a selfish point of view I’m very happy about it; I really appreciate that I got to do this, and I’d recommend it to all violinists! It gives you another take on the man himself; you can listen to pieces as much as you like but if you don’t actually play them yourself, having to recreate what’s on the page, you’re not going to experience it in the same way.

Some people might worry that to focus on a popular set of cello pieces is to gloss over equally enjoyable, but perhaps less-championed, corners of the violin repertoire that you’re in a perfect position to bring to a wider audience. Do you think that’s fair?

Everything I’ve done has been relatively mainstream, if you consider I’ve recorded the Bach violin solo works as well as concertos and sonatas, Mozart sonatas, Mozart's Sinfonia concertante, Haydn violin concertos, Vivaldi violin concertos.....pretty much mainstream! I’ve also indulged in lesser-known repertoire of course, such as Biber Mystery Sonatas and the pieces on the Perla Barocca album of seventeenth-century Italian works, and also the Grandissima Gravita which has a few pieces that aren’t so well known, such as the exquisite Tartini sonatas. People who say this do definitely have a point, but I’ve got time to do plenty more and I can put their mind at ease: My next project is going to be the Beethoven Violin Sonatas - not the Cello Sonatas! I’m not going to be continuing with cello music... It’s really more to do with Bach - the same way I was having a go at some of the fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier as a kind of mind-exercise, almost like doing crosswords.

People often see recording as being very separate from the rest of one’s life, but in reality it’s just a reflection of what we’re thinking about and working on at that point. So having an idea like is exciting as it takes on its own momentum, and it’s very natural to put it down. Everything has been and is part of a process, rather than being unconnected, as if we did concerts and then separately questioned “OK, what are we going to record?”. It’s an organic process, and I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. If someone just saw the album itself, they might not understand where it had come from so they would quite naturally question my motives, especially with a controversial idea there will be those who like it and those who don’t - and that’s OK! Hopefully enough will like it, or be intrigued...

You’re by no means the first to adapt Bach’s unaccompanied works for an instrument other than the ones they were written for; the cello suites alone have been performed by hornists, trombonists, bassoonists and more. What do you think it is about these solo suites that draws so many people to borrow them for their own instrument?

There is something special about them, definitely. They are very accessible, which is why they work so well in concerts; in a way I think they’re easier on the audience than the violin sonatas and partitas. The fugues in the violin sonatas, in particular, are really hard to listen to and to follow and it takes some work, especially for an audience who’ve never heard them before. Try playing one of those pieces to a primary-school class and you’ll see what I mean; whereas if you played Vivaldi, for instance, they’d start laughing and jumping about because it’s got such an effervescent energy about it.

So yes, they’re very accessible to an audience - of all ages. The dance movements, and even the preludes, aren’t particularly long, so in terms of attention span they are easy on the ear and to understand, although Bach makes the simple dance forms his own by adding complex harmonies, complex turns of phrases, and interesting, sometimes arresting and always characterful ideas. The dances within each suite differ from each other: for example each Allemande differs in terms of character and mood, as well as pulse and pace. There’s a lot to discover. At the same time, they don’t sound complicated, with the possible exception of the Allemande in No. 6, which can be quite hard to comprehend at times; there’s lots of filigree and written-out ornamentation which is easy to get lost in. This one was a bit of a challenge for me personally, but I felt I got to understand it much better by playing it than listening to it!

That’s the big plus for these pieces - the accessibility, the variety and the unique combination of dance character and the deep and meaningful spirituality which infuses all of Bach’s music. Without lightness you don’t get so much depth; if everything is the same intensity the expression stays the same throughout. This is particularly true in Baroque music, but I do think all music lives off the relationship between intensity and relaxation and the dynamic between those two. I obviously of course adore playing and performing the violin pieces, which I have for years, and I keep discovering new things in them - so I’m certainly not giving up on them! One thing I’m able to do now is to combine the two in solo recitals, which is really fun to do - you don’t even have to bring a cellist along!

You’ve always been highly-regarded for your attention to historical authenticity, predominantly with a focus on the Baroque era. Do you think it’s possible to give an “authentic” performance of a work on a different instrument (and do you think this kind of repurposing might actually have precedents in Bach’s own time)?

In a case of changing the instrumentation, ie playing cello music on another related string instrument, here the violin, I think it sort of goes beyond those considerations of 'authentic'. It’s not as though we’re looking at a change of instrument in a carefully designed and orchestrated work with multiple instruments, such as a Passion or mass where the instrumentation is key to the expression and devotion of the movement in question. We still have the qualities of the bow striking a string and the rhetorical qualities this can express. It’s a different matter when it comes to style, though: I remember having a go at playing the famous Adagio ascribed to Albinoni with a baroque band - the one with the extremely romantic melody, despite having baroque-sounding elements such as in the sequences and harmonies. To begin with we tried to do it in an authentic style with commonplace eighteenth-century articulations etc, but found it didn’t quite work. We found ourselves playing with much more vibrato and legato and so on as the language and style of the music required it. This in turn presented us with a dilemma because language and style were confused.

With JS Bach there’s no confusion at all; his language is utterly clear and I feel I can relate to the meaning of his writing, whatever instrument he intended it for. In terms of the question of authenticity vs inauthenticity here, I think playing Bach on a different string instrument has little to do with these concepts; in order to play Bach on any instrument, the essential thing is to learn his language. Back in the day players might well have experimented with so many different ways of performing and on different instruments, and it seems unlikely there would have been an uproar about playing, say, a work for flute on the cello for instance, or whatever instrument might have been to hand. We know from Bach himself that when he taught harmony and keyboard, he most likely played the violin because it would allow him to instruct his student at the same time - he might have played along with just the top line to help the pupil. We know he also played the flute, but multi-tasking instruction and flute playing would have been more of a challenge. Projects like this encourage some thinking outside of the box; even though the score says a piece is for violin, and one is for cello, perhaps they wouldn’t have refrained from playing them on other instruments. In any case, it was common for musicians to play many different instruments - maybe they tried pieces written for a particular instrument out on another, just to see how different it sounded; attitudes to instrumentation might well have been less black-and-white than assumed.

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arranged for violin

Rachel Podger (violin)

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