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Johann Sebastian Bach Violin Concertos (feat. violin: Rachel Podger; Brecon Baroque) Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

No one will go wrong with this invigorating album.

Graham Rogers 2010

Of the 20 or so of Bach’s surviving concertos, only two are for solo violin. Both the A minor and E major concertos (BWV 1041 and 1042) have long been cherished mainstays of the violin repertoire. Rachel Podger describes them as "old friends" – which is not to say that there is anything remotely routine about her new recording of the concertos with her six-member Brecon Baroque ensemble. This crack squad of first-rate period-instrument musicians gives lithe, polished and devoted performances that make a convincing case for a one-to-a-part "orchestra". Indeed, so full-bodied is the sound that you could be forgiven for not noticing the paucity of numbers – except the precision and freedom for manoeuvre is far greater than any chamber orchestra could achieve.

Podger has one of the sweetest tones of any period-instrument violinist – heard at its most beautiful in the singing Andante of BWV 1041, wonderfully sustained but never cloying. The finale has an infectiously spritely bounce and exhilarating dramatic tension; despite the energetic pace, it manages to stay firmly on the rails thanks to the players’ formidable technique and musicianship.

The opening Allegro of the E major concerto is Bach at his most sunny and carefree. Podger and company exude joy, although they are occasionally a touch frantic: uplifting though their performance is, they never quite relax into the mellow composure this music needs. More effective is the soulful Adagio, contrasting dark intensity with sublime moments of golden light emerging from brooding clouds, and an ebullient finale.

It’s likely that some of the arrangements for solo harpsichord and strings Bach made later in his career started life as violin concertos, so Podger augments this release with persuasive accounts of speculative adaptations for violin of a couple of harpsichord concertos. The measured tempo for the first movement of BWV 1056 in G minor has appropriate gravitas without losing buoyancy; the central Largo, with its delicately flowing melody and pizzicato "droplet" accompaniment, is utterly beguiling. The A major BWV 1055 has plenty of panache too, although the low-lying solo line makes it less convincing as a violin concerto (it was probably written for oboe d’amore). This is a small quibble, however: no one will go wrong with this invigorating album.

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