Rachel Podger is an artist I have not heard in the concert hall, but in future I'll grab every chance I get to hear her. Here is an artist whose musicality transcends technical difficulties and takes you straight to the heart of the music.
On this new disc, two Haydn concerti are bookends to a well known masterpiece, the Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart. I grew up with the famous recording of the Mozart by the Oistrakhs, father and son, and frankly no performance could ever really knock it off its perch. You have probably heard the story that before a public performance of this concerto for violin and viola, David Oistrakh would toss a coin to see who would play which part.
This recording does not attempt to tackle the Oistrakhs head on. It is instead a smaller scale performance played on original instruments. The soloists play gut stringed Stradivari and are accompanied by the twenty-strong period instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, who play without need of conductor. The violist Pavlo Beznosiuk is the perfect foil for Podger, matching her tonality and phrasing at every turn. His Castelbarco Strad, from the superb collection of the Royal Academy of Music, started life in 1720 as a viola d'amore, but was converted into a viola by a Parisian dealer. This involved the replacement of the original flat back with a new swell back to match Stadivari's own violas, and the introduction of an Amati head. The modified instrument was sold to Count Castelbarco, who gave it its name. Rachel Podger plays another instrument from the same collection, the Crespi Strad from 1699, and it is the last made example of the "Long Pattern' design. It's interesting to note that this priceless treasure sold for £76 in 1872.
The tempi chosen for this work are moderate, allowing the music to flow without loss of fine detail, and giving us time to relish the exquisite phrasing and tone color. We are far from the thin scratchy sound of some period instrument players here. Instead the colors are strong and vibrant, darker in color than modern instruments but securely pitched throughout, and with a very strong tuneful bass underpinning. This is the best period-instrument Mozart I have heard to date, up to the very fine standards set by Christophe Coin and the Quatuor Mosaiques. Mozart composed the Sinfonia Concertante immediately following the death of his mother, and the pain of that loss infuses the first two movements, only to be dispelled by the remarkable warmth of the third movement Presto, wonderfully realised here.
In the Haydn concerti Podger uses her own Pesarinius violin, more suitable in her view for these earlier works. This is splendid fiddling indeed, and the rustic humor and angular rhythms we recognize from Haydn's symphonies are clearly present here. There is a lightness of touch and finesse that truly suits these early and none too serious works. The standout here is the second movement adagio of the C Major Concerto. Podger plays the beautiful theme against a pizzicato accompaniment that foreshadows Beethoven's third Razumovsky Quartet. Sublime music, fully realized.
This disc comes from Channel Classics, who are unusually generous with the technical details of the recordings, naming the cables, converters, amplifiers and speakers used to monitor and to mix. They have good reason to display these credits, since the sound is fresh and warm, if perhaps a little generous in the bass. It's a hybrid disc so you can enjoy it as a CD or stereo or 6 track SACD. It's a winner from any angle.