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One Helluva Fiddler

Posted by acdtest on May 26, 2003

One Helluva Fiddler

ome few years have passed since I last sat down to listen to the readings of Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin done by violinist Rachel Podger (in two volumes, here and here), and hearing them again today reminded me afresh of what a first-rate talent Ms. Podger is, both as a fiddler and musician. Hearing these recordings again also caused me to search this weblog for my remarks on these readings, and — mirabile dictu! — they were nowhere to be found. I hasten now to correct that egregious oversight.

First, a dispelling of some unfortunate notions that might be provoked by the hyped manner in which these recordings have been billed and promoted.

Rachel Podger is billed as a Baroque specialist performing on a “Baroque violin.” Quite apart from the fact that there is, per se, no such instrument, this sort of hype instantly conjures a picture of a pasty-faced, gruel-blooded little wonk, performing on an instrument with a sound about as rich and subtle as a kazoo, who will do everything in her power to rob the music of anything remotely musically expressive, and produce readings at breakneck tempi, and with a superabundance of gratuitous Baroque ornament — which is to say, produce readings fit for nothing other than the trash bin.

None of the above is the case with these readings. Ms. Podger’s instrument, from the sound of it, is on the classic model of the Cremona school, strung with gut rather than steel-wound strings. In other words, the kind of fiddle we’re all used to hearing, but with a warmer, very slightly more nasal sound. As for Ms. Podger herself, no pasty-faced, gruel-blooded little wonk she. Her playing glows with robust good health, and is as full-blooded as any produced by the famous fiddlers of the Auer School (Heifetz and Milstein being the most well-known of that group). So y’all can rest easy on those points.

As to the audio of the recordings themselves, a quick note. Both volumes employ an acoustic a bit too reverberant for my tastes (Volume 2 seemingly more than Volume 1), but it’s in no way intrusive or even close to being inappropriate.

And so, on to the music and the performance.

As Shiva is the destroyer of worlds, the six Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin are collectively the destroyer of fiddle players. No fiddler dares even approach them unless his technique is nothing short of formidable. But that’s only the first requisite. If you’re a concert fiddler typical of the current generation whose technique is certainly formidable, but whose readings of the repertoire are replete with the grafted-on expressive schtick of the Auer Gang (sorry, couldn’t resist) as it typically is, you’d best stay away from this music, for if you attempt it you’ll be revealed instantly for the musically empty shell that you are.

Ms. Podger, however, has nothing to fear on any count. Her technique is formidable indeed; formidable and secure to the point of transparency. And there’s no schtick or grafting-on of anything in her readings of these works. Her playing is muscular, lyrical, sinewy, sweet, or impassioned as the music variously requires, with the overarching principle of the poetic always and prominently in evidence. From the mystical Adagio of the G minor Sonata, to the furious Allegro Assai of the C major; from the playful Corrente of the B minor Partita, to the majestic and profound Ciaccona of the D minor, everything resonates right and true. There’s no greasy kid stuff here, and no heroic, Romantic posturing la…every other fiddler who has recorded these works, the second Milstein reading alone perhaps excepted. These readings will take a little getting used to for many (especially the Ciaccona), but will repay a thousand-fold the slight adjustment required.

I’ve been waiting for it seems forever to hear a fiddler do these works in the same transcendent way Gould does the keyboard works. I’m still waiting, but these readings come closer than any other in my experience.

Ms. Podger is one helluva fiddler, and a first-rate musician into the bargain.

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