Last night in Herbst Theatre, violinist Rachel Podger returned to serve as guest leader of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) in the San Francisco performance of the second program of the ensemble’s 2016–17 season. The title of her program was Vivaldi & Bach, and Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach were both represented by two compositions. The ordering is chronological in that Bach was about seventeen years Vivaldi’s junior. The program also included works by two “successors,” who followed Bach by about half a decade, Francesco Maria Veracini and Giuseppe Tartini. All six of these composers were skilled violinists, making them thoroughly appropriate selections for Podger’s programming.
Podger’s discography includes three of Vivaldi’s published collections of twelve concertos (but, just for the record, not the collection that includes The Four Seasons). However, she used last night’s program to venture into less familiar Vivaldi territory. This included a G minor “chamber concerto” (RV 105), which is basically chamber music organized in the “concerto form” of virtuoso solo passages alternating with a recurring ritornello. Podger was one of the four soloists, performing with Hanneke van Proosdij on recorder, Marc Schachman on oboe, and Andrew Schwartz on bassoon; and the middle of the three movements was limited to the duo of Proosdij and Schwartz. Continuo was provided by Katherine Heater on organ, Kristin Zoernig on bass, William Skeen on cello, and David Tayler on theorbo. This clearly entailed a major departure from normative practices by Vivaldi and his many student charges; but the combination of solo voices was definitely an effective one, providing those listeners who thought they knew all about Vivaldi with something different to consider.
During the first half of the program, Podger took the solo part in the RV 234 D major violin concerto to which Vivaldi assigned the programmatic title “L’inquietudine” (anxiety). Like the “Winter” concerto from The Four Seasons, this concerto provided a platform for some rather intense expressiveness; and some of the more memorable “Winter” tropes show up in the concerto’s third movement. The opening movement, on the other hand, distinguishes itself through rapid-fire delivery of rhythms far more eccentric than one expects from instrumental music at the threshold of the eighteenth century. (Perhaps Vivaldi had decided that, when it came to emotional display, opera singers should not be allowed to have all the fun.) Podger endowed this concerto with just the right level of virtuoso display, reminding us all that there are still new things to be encountered in the Vivaldi canon.
Much of the appeal of her Vivaldi delivery came from the fact that, while she was reading from a score, she could still convey the impression that she was jamming her way through her solo parts. However, the real treat of jamming that affirmed the role of the Baroque as a legitimate ancestor to serious bebop came with the performance of Bach’s concerto for violin and oboe, which provided two distinctively unique voices to play off each other. This concerto is usually cataloged as BWV 1060R. BWV 1060 is the C minor concerto for two harpsichords, which is believed to be a transcription of a lost concerto (possibly in D minor) for oboe and violin. In other words BWV 1060R is an attempt to reconstruct the lost concerto by rearranging BWV 1060! (If all that is now clear, it is time for the reader to start reviewing the story of Siegfried’s ancestry before Wagner’s Ring returns to the San Francisco Opera in the summer of 2018!)
The oboe soloist for last night performance of BWV 1060R was Gonzalo X. Ruiz. If this concerto is an arrangement, then the arranger (presumably Bach himself) clearly appreciated the distinctive characteristics of the two instruments and knew exactly how to have each play off the other. Watching Podger and Ruiz leap deftly through all of Bach’s hoops, one could almost see them at Minton’s Playhouse pulling off the same act, paying more attention to each other than to any marks on score pages. This was in-the-moment music-making at its most sparkling; and it provided the best example of the evening of Podger empathic skill at “playing well with others.”
For the other Bach selection, she led the entire PBO ensemble in the BWV 1066 orchestral suite in C major to conclude the program. Wherever possible, the performers stood before their music stands, which provided greater overall visibility of how each of the instrumental voices contributed to Bach’s textures. It was also interesting to note that, among the dance movements with a separate middle section in an overall ternary form, the middle section usually involved only three voices. This is probably why, by the time of the Classical period, the middle section of a minuet movement was called a “trio,” even if the tradition of using only three voices had long passed.
The program opened with a G minor overture by Veracini in four movements (which could just as easily have been called a sinfonia). This piece abounded with eccentric virtuoso gestures for a full ensemble, making it the perfect introduction to the highly expressive RV 234 Vivaldi concerto that followed. Virtuosity also flourished in Podger’s command of Tartini’s D. 96 A major concerto, which opened the second half of the program. Nevertheless, the evening was ruled by Vivaldi and Bach with a freshness of delivery that reminded all attentive listeners that, in the hands of the right performers, this music never goes out of style.