Rachel Podger/Brecon Baroque: Vivaldi: Le Quattro Stagioni (Channel Classics)
"I just wanted to take time to get to know as much music by him as possible. Then it kind of felt right, ok, now we're going to do Opus 8."
Rachel Podger, who's often referred to as 'The Queen of the Baroque Violin,' has recorded numerous Vivaldi concertos over the years, and now, as she approaches her 50th birthday, she's finally getting around to Opus 8, which includes Vivaldi's most famous set of concertos, The Four Seasons.
Rachel recorded The Four Seasons, along with a few additional concerti, with Brecon Baroque, an ensemble based in Wales, which she founded a few years ago. Rachel hand-picked eight of her favorite friends and colleagues, each of whom gets a chance to improvise, bringing their own ideas to the table.
"Oh yes and that's what it's all about, and it goes hand in hand with the repertoire, especially if you're a continuo player. So whether you're playing the harpsichord or the organ or the lute — so you're playing the baseline, but you're playing the harmonies as well — but you're improvising as you go with your right hand or your melody, counterpoint, stuff that's not written down, and that I think that's just really liberating for those players."
You mentioned some of the instrumentation which actually may be new to some ears who are familiar with The Four Seasons with a more modern ensemble. Let's talk a little bit about some of the textures that are added from instruments like the theorbo and the harpsichord and the chamber organ, and where we hear that in those concertos.
"It adds a lot of variety and a lot of richness. And I love the different combinations. So if we're thinking about the middle movement of Winter, you've got the rain in the violins, and it's marked forte, so it's kind of quite strong rain. And then in the bass, you've just got these eighth notes with the harmonies of course and so that's all that's given.
"So we tried all sorts of things, so we had the organ playing sustained then we had the lute kind of doing some movement, kind of plucking, we also tried it with harpsichord too, and we even tried one hand on the harpsichord, one hand on the organ which was hilarious. So, in the end, when we had to decide which take, it was actually quite tricky to choose which one.
"I will have strong ideas about certain bits, but often it's just so great to just give them free rein and then they go wild and you think, actually that's brilliant. I mean there's actually one bit in our latest recording where in the concerto, the Il Grosso Mogul, where I had envisaged as quite light in the accompaniment. Anyway, they started doing all sorts of kind of rock'n'roll stuff, strumming away and adding a few rhythms. At first I thought, 'Okay, alright,' and we kept that at the end, and I think it works really well."
One of the things that I've noticed in listening to this recording is there are times when this little orchestra of eight people sounds so much fuller. I mean I literally had to go and count them again going, really, this is only eight people? And I'm thinking like maybe in the first and the third movement of Summer when it's very dramatic and so full.
"That's the great thing about gut strings. If you go into the string with a bow, which of course the gut string lets you do because it's porous and there's a kind of give in the string which is very different from a wound string on modern instruments — if you do that, if you let your bow go right in there — you get the most amazing volume and a very kind of gutsy sound. What I mean by that is there's a kind of natural articulation that happens because just the nature of the friction between the bow and this gut string.
"On a violone, for instance, which is the kind of bass instrument that we use, the 16 foot — it sounds incredible. It's really powerful when you do some what I call scrubbing, kind of fast notes on the bottom strings and you can see the string going bananas, it's like vibrating and the frequency is going really high in the box, you know they're listening to it, they say, 'Gosh, you guys are loud.'
"And so all these contrasts that are written in the score, you just need to physically feel them, even if you're just on a recording. I mean on the stage in a performance, in a way it's easier to bring that to an audience because you can physically really see it too and you can really go for it. So you're trying to get that effect on the recording."
To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.