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Interview, Rachel Podger on Tutta Sola

Rachel PodgerBach's works for solo violin and cello are, by any reasonable definition of the term, core repertoire – learned and performed the world over by huge numbers of musicians, arranged into myriad alternate versions and instantly recognisable even by those without a particular interest in classical music.

They're also, of course, very frequently recorded. Baroque violinist Rachel Podger's latest album, though, looks behind the curtain at the works that preceded them, and the development of compositions for the violin senza basso. Composers both well-known and obscure are featured, as well as a transcription of Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV565 for organ – perhaps his most iconic work of all – for solo violin.

I spoke to Rachel about the works she's included on this album, and how the idea of the violin tutta sola took shape in the minds of composers over the years.

The idea of the solo violin being an “innovation” seems bizarre; musicians have been playing fiddle-like instruments unaccompanied for millennia. But it wasn’t until the end of the seventeenth century that formalised solo-violin works came along - what was it that led “classical” composers to explore this style?

This is something that's often on our minds when playing these solo pieces - we're wondering what was going on beforehand, and where all that invention went. Of course it was all around; we know that most music-making was based around extemporisation - whether that was playing divisions in the Renaissance or making up a harmony part to a well-known folk melody in the tavern! Even if that was just a drone - the idea of the melody instrument also providing the bass line wasn't a new thing for violinists. They would probably also have played a bass instrument or a chordal instrument as well, maybe a lyra viol or lira da braccio, so that definitely existed. The fact that we don't have a written resource of it doesn't mean it wasn't there.

The lyra viol (L) and lira da braccio (R)
The lyra viol (L) and lira da braccio (R)

As for why it suddenly became a stylised form - I think it had to do with the emergence of the "soloist" and the idea of projecting yourself as someone who stood apart from others. We see that in the early eighteenth century and indeed already in the seventeenth, with Nicola Matteis (the elder, not the younger who is on this album) coming over from Naples and being extraordinarily virtuosic. That was clearly something quite new for the English court.

And of course in the early eighteenth century lots of Italians were in London, producing their solos and publishing their opuses - not just to advance their musical careers but to explore what they could do on the instrument. "Solos" at that point didn't yet mean playing all on your own; the term would have meant you were playing with a bass accompaniment. The true solo, senza basso, was at first partly a practical consideration. Maybe there just wasn't a bass instrument around, or maybe it was partly the challenge of exploring what you could do. If you look at the Westhoff piece, it's very polyphonic - those pieces are seen as a kind of precursor to Bach's sets, as they might have met.

The early stuff, like divisions for the violin in the seventeenth century, always has a bassline but it's very much squeezed into the corner, as it were; it's not a big part for a basso continuo as you'd get in a sonata. So you could easily just fiddle around at home and work out how to incorporate the bass note if it was in a compatible key with the open strings. You can see how that might have emerged and become part of practice.

So it might be both a practical thing and also a way to show off your ability to be the entire band by yourself?

Definitely. Especially with all those Italians! They were known to be complete showoffs. For example Vivaldi, who would show off his latest cadenzas between the acts of operas. The score might have been a fairly minimal scrawl, or he could have been making the music up entirely. And we know from the diarist John Evelyn that Nicola Matteis the elder played polyphonically, a whole “choir” on his instrument - the fact that that was written down as something new and noteworthy is interesting.

We’re accustomed today to hearing these pieces – and even more so those they inspired from Bach – in the concert-hall. Do we know anything about what settings they would have been performed in at the time?

I doubt it would have been large-scale performances like we have today. I think Westhoff played for Louis XIV in Paris, and the sonata of his that is on this album was actually published successfully in a French magazine. I'd have thought that that kind of music would have been played at court. Vilsmayr, in Salzburg, was part of the Hofkapelle [court musical ensemble] - he probably studied with Biber - and I think that was similar, probably quite an intimate setting.

That would fit with Biber's Rosary Sonatas being a private devotional piece, rather than something you'd have gone out to listen to in a concert setting?

Yes, indeed - I don't think this music was "concert" music in that sense. Maybe in England at about the time, but over in Austria I can't imagine that being the case.

The Klagenfurt and Nogueira manuscripts are hardly well-known; I just happened to come across the Klagenfurt one (from a convent in southern Austria) in a doctorate by Pauline Nobes. I was trying to find another suite that would be different, so I made one up from those two manuscripts. I think these were pieces that would just have been played for the entertainment of the other nuns!

Maybe it's even the equivalent of putting on a record or a CD – if you fancied some music, you'd send for the court violinist to come and play you something on demand?

Yes, I think so - either as entertainment or as background music for a reception. A bit like a court minstrel. And also simply in the home.

Like the Telemann Fantasias, aimed at middling amateurs?

Yes - and the music in the Walsh collection of Select Preludes and Voluntaries for the Violin, (many of which are taken from sonatas that did have a basso continuo). The full title of the Walsh is great: Select Preludes & Vollentarys for the Violin being Made and Contrived for the Improvement of the Hand with Variety of Compositions by all the Greatest Masters in Europe for that Instrument! What a brilliant publicist - it's so clever. Of course everyone's going to go out and buy it, thinking "ooh, I'm going to get much better if I play this - and look, it's got the famous Arcangelo Corelli in it..."

The other composers featured on this recording – Vilsmayr, Tartini, Westhoff – have all been recorded in history as accomplished violin virtuosos. Were they widely-known stars (like the later rock star Romantic pianists), or only appreciated within their own circles?

It's not on the same level as Liszt or Chopin - it's all very localised, for the simple reason that travel between places is much harder at this point in time before trains and motors and things.

I think the question of fame depended on where you were. If you were in London then of course you could rely on a little bit more fame, but that would be to do with who you knew and whether you were approved of by the court.

The impact of travel, though, is really key. Simple things like mountains being in the way! You hear this in the way all the little villages had their own dialects because they weren't so well connected to each other.

And this is back before pitch was standardised, too, so every town would have had its own pitch - and its own time zone...

And its own set of recorders! Everything is much more localised at this point - and it makes it quite extraordinary that music travelled as much as it did. Italian music, in the eighteenth century, became known in England very quickly - by that stage there was a lot of travel going on.

So clearly plenty of people thought it was worth hauling a bundle of music over the Alps!

Just imagine! Across the water, too - it's crazy how much has survived, with all the shipwrecks and the fires and everything else.

There’s some evidence that Bach at least met Westhoff, and may even have been inspired by his solo-violin works. What do we know about Bach’s own competence on the violin? Would he have been able to write for the instrument idiomatically from his own experience?

It's interesting to think about him going for advice on how to write for the instrument - Bach just seems such a hallowed genius, how could he ever need advice?

He also apparently knew Pisendel, who was another great violinist. I think he was just extremely clued-up in general and knew what would lie under the hand, and the sonorities, and about scordatura - he would have understood what the violin could do, and been able to explore its limitations in his solo partitas.

He was also inspired so intensely by Vivaldi's writing - we know that he transcribed Vivaldi for his main instrument, the keyboard, but of course he also took on that whole idea of violinistic panache. You get that in the concertos, and the adoption of the ritornello form and amalgamating the Italian and French styles.

And there's that quote from CPE Bach about his father:

He played the violin cleanly and penetratingly... and understood to perfection the possibilities of all string instruments. This is evidenced by his solos for the violin and for the violoncello without bass. One of the greatest violinists told me once that he had seen nothing more perfect for learning to be a good violinist, and could suggest nothing better to anyone eager to learn, than the said violin solos without bass.

So he must have been playing to some extent for most of his life, rather than mostly in his youth?

Oh, yes - we know that he used it to teach. And he led ensembles - not just from the keyboard, but from the violin. He's very much a violinist writing for the violin. I don't think he needed much assistance in exploring the instrument - he was quite good enough at it already.

What about the famous Toccata and Fugue, which most people will know as an organ work in D minor - why is that in a different key here?

It has to be, to fit with the instrument's range, so that the big spread chord near the beginning is in the right place for example. And all the arpeggios - it reminds me of some of the solo sonata No.2 in A minor.

People have been suggesting for quite a while that some parts of the Toccata, like the repeated-note ostinato sections, lend themselves very well to the idea of being played on the violin...

Yes, just look at it - it's string-crossings and it's much more natural to play than it is on the keyboard. I read that article by Peter Williams that people cite a lot [NB: JSTOR login or JPASS subscription required to view article], which he wrote around the same time that Jaap Schröder, one of the early pioneers of the Baroque violin, had recorded this version for the first time, in A minor. He's questioning everything - whether it's for the organ, whether it's even by Bach, what the key should be, and the weird tempo fluctuations.

That's the thing that convinced me - if you look at those passages where the organ part keeps returning to the same A. If you're playing around on the violin it’s right there in front of you - it would occur to you so naturally.

Excerpt from the Toccata of BWV565, showing the A ostinato and the melody crossing over it.
Excerpt from the Toccata of BWV565, showing the A ostinato and the melody crossing over it.

For me what was challenging was the ending - those big spread chords. I actually had a small bit of input on Chad Kelly's transcription myself, which I'm quite pleased with - adding a little lead-in to the arpeggio before each chord to make sound more violinistic.

But to get all those scrunchy chords right at the end needs space. And of course it helps to play it in a nice acoustic - I played it in Lichfield Cathedral, which is wonderful.

The temptation - as with any transcription - is to feel like you have to emulate the version you know in your head. Which of course is completely futile as well as completely unnecessary! So after a while it becomes its own thing - it takes off and you find the idiomatic side of the writing.

Rachel Podger (violin)

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC, Hi-Res+ FLAC

Rachel Podger (violin)

Available Format: 2 CDs