SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

VIVALDI: La Cetra – Twelve Violin Concertos Op. 9 – Rachel Podger, violin/ Holland Baroque Society – Channel Classics
W. A. MOZART & M. HAYDN: Duo Sonatas – Rachel Podger, violin/ Jane Rogers, viola – Channel Classics

Vital Vivaldi, plus aristocratic Haydn and Mozart, all captured in elegant surround sound.

Published on October 23, 2012

VIVALDI: La Cetra – Twelve Violin Concertos Op. 9  –  Rachel Podger, violin/ Holland Baroque Society – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 33412 (2 discs), 60:29; 56:56 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

W. A. MOZART & M. HAYDN: Duo Sonatas – MOZART: Duo for Violin and Viola in g Major, KV 423; MICHAEL HAYDN: Duo for Violin and Viola No. 1 in C Major, MH 335 (P127); MOZART: Duo for Violin and Viola in B-flat Major, KV 424; MICHAEL HAYDN: Duo for Violin and Viola No. 2 in D Major, MH 336 (P128); MOZART: Menuetto (from Duos for Horn, K  487) – Rachel Podger, violin/ Jane Rogers, viola – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 32411, 72:37 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Here we have Rachel Podger times two—but these two recordings are anything but peas in a pod. Instead, they illustrate that a specialist in eighteenth-century music needs to be something of a chameleon. And Podger is a very successful musical chameleon. First we have the earthy, vital La Centra concerti of Vivaldi, rendered all the more powerfully elemental by the accompaniments of Holland Baroque Society—their best outing yet, as far as I’m concerned. Then we have the intimate urbane music of two classical masters, Mozart and Michael Haydn, written for the rarefied delectation of the Archbishop of Salzburg. In both works, Podger plays a 1739 Pasarinius violin, Pasarinius being a Latinization of the name of Genoan violin maker Antonio Pazzarini (d. 1744).

La Cetra, Vivaldi’s last published collection of violin concerti (1727), was dedicated to a royal music fan, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. According to Rachel Podger, whose 2003 recording of Vivaldi’s Op. 4 is much prized, Op. 9 is more virtuosic, with more “special effects” such as scordatura tuning. Of course, if she encountered any difficulties in meeting these challenges, we don’t hear it on the recording; her playing throughout is a model of grace and utter security. As mentioned above, La Cetra, at least as rendered by Podger and Holland Baroque, is music of scintillating vitality. When I first listened to Concerto No. 1 in C Major, I thought the players had snuck some percussion instrument or other into the proceedings but soon realized this was just the enthusiastic thrumming of the continuo lutenists. For another sample, listen to the last movement of the more dramatic Concerto No. 8 in D Minor, where one can almost imagine the solo violin singing a bitter aria voicing betrayal or some other outrage.

For those familiar with Podger’s La Stravaganza, this set will probably be self-recommending. For those who aren’t and who enjoy the robust, no-holds-barred approach of Fabio Biondi in Vivaldi, you will also be drawn to Podger and Holland Baroque. But while I find that Bioni and his band sometimes bring Vivaldi to the edge of brutality, there’s a refinement in Podger’s approach that especially informs the meltingly expressive slow movements.

A musical deficiency of the set for me is Vivaldi’s, not the performers. Vivaldi was such a vivid tone painter that his programmatic concerti are always immediately grabbing—hence the undying popularity of The Four Seasons and of pieces such as Tempesta di Mare (RV 253) and Il Gardellino (RV 428). As fine as many of the concerti in Op. 9 are, I don’t suggest listening to them one after another all the way through as critics sometimes feel it’s their duty to do. Once I had gone that route the first time around, I tended to savor a few, or even one or two, concerti at a time and was happier for the experience.

Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, besides the superb artistry of Rachel Podger, the Holland Baroque Society outdo themselves here, including violinist Judith Steenbrink, who joins Podger in the double concerto, No. 9 in B-flat Major. This is also the best sound recording the Channel Classics engineers have afforded the group; they manage to tame the resonance of Waalse Kirk in Amsterdam and turn it to advantage. Bravo to one and all involved in this project.


With the Mozart and Haydn duos, by contrast to the Vivaldi, we have chamber music of the most intimately conversational sort. Reportedly, they’re modeled on the very successful duets written around 1770 by Michael’s older brother Franz Joseph. An anecdote has it that Michael Haydn was stewing over his commission for six duos from the Archbishop, unable to crank out more than four, when Mozart (now living in Vienna) showed up in Salzburg and offered to complete the commission for a grateful Haydn. Note-writer Timothy Jones doesn’t credit the anecdote with total veracity but comments that since both Haydn’s four and Mozart’s two duos are datable to 1783 and since the keys in which Mozart’s are written complement those of Haydn’s four, the story has some plausibility.

As Jones further notes, Michael approached the duos as virtuoso vehicles, writing lavishly showy music for the two instruments, while Mozart, maybe following the example of the solo writing in his own Sinfonia Concertante of 1779, writes elaborately intertwining music for the string players that is “saturated with imitation.”

It’s a natural inclination to favor the more extrovert creations in each set—Mozart’s G Major Duo and Haydn’s C Major respectively. In different moods, however, you may prefer their more sedate companions. The Mozart’s B-flat Duo’s four-movement structure even includes a slow introduction (a beautifully poised one) and undemonstrative variations finale marked Andante grazioso, making it seem pleasingly old-fashioned, even if the music is expectedly inspired throughout.

Given space constraints, we do not, alas, get all four Haydn duos, but as with Mozart, we do have a nicely contrasted pair, the first showy, the second more restrained, with, again, a variations-form finale modestly marked Allegro non troppo. In the battle of variations, Mozart wins hands-down, Haydn’s variations based on a rather four-square theme that tends to straightjacket the music that follows. And so it goes for the remainder of the works on offer, although Haydn’s bright-eyed Duo No. 1, with an especially propulsive finale, has its own charms, even if Mozart wins the duo race by a lap or so.

Rachel Podger and her violist companion Jane Rogers make a natural pair, working quite well together except where Haydn has them almost working against each other, like rival divas. The top-notch musicianship is matched by a pellucid recording from Channel Classics. On paper, surround sound wouldn’t seem to add much when recording just a pair of instruments, but not so. The added realism in terms of ambience and instrumental placement is worth that extra, slightly more expensive, layer on the CD. [Just the same as with solo instruments...Ed.]

—Lee Passarella




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