Over the past 20 years, not only has Rachel Podger established herself as a leading Baroque violinist and conductor, she’s also been well served by recordings of exceptional quality. Podger was featured on eight Linn Records CDs and SACDs with the Palladians, a period instrument chamber group she formed with other like-minded students at London’s Guildhall Music School in the early 1990s. Since striking out on her own as a soloist, Podger has been featured on two-dozen recordings for Channel Classics. (There were a few projects for Harmonia Mundi and L’Oiseau Lyre along the way, as well.) Engineer Jared Sacks works his usual magic with Podger’s latest CC SACD, Perla Barocca (“Baroque Pearl”), a collection of Italian marvels dating from the 16th and 17th centuries and performed by a trio of violin, harpsichord/organ, and theorbo.
Podger’s 70-minute program includes works by several composers familiar to general listeners (Girolamo Frescobaldi, Andrea Gabrieli, and perhaps Biago Marini) and a larger number by men—and one woman—that only specialists will have encountered much (Giovanni Battista Fontana, Marco Uccellini, Dario Castello, Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli, Isabella Leonarda, Giovanni Paolo Cima, and Antonio Bertali). Much of the music is vocally inflected, spontaneous sounding, and expressive. Other pieces are more floridly virtuosic: the Bertali Chiacona has a folksy syncopation that will evoke American bluegrass for some. There are moments of near-ecstatic extroversion, as with Castello’s engagingly hyperactive Sonata Seconda. Sometimes the writing for solo violin is affably restrained while on other occasions—La Vinciolina by the exceptionally obscure Mealli, for example—there’s the emotional charge of a Vivaldi or Biber in evidence.
Podger has two outstanding collaborators, who provide vastly more than a bland “continuo” accompaniment. The young Marcin Swiatkiewicz, from Poland, provides confidently stylish support on harpsichord and a small organ with a delightful piping quality. He ornaments aptly, as evidenced on his solo turn, a Frescobaldi Toccata. The theorbo, a large member of the lute family quite familiar to early music buffs, is exquisitely plucked and strummed by a leading Italian player, Daniele Caminiti. Caminiti plays with great subtlety, his commentary on occasion coming close to inaudibility. At the same time, we get to experience the surprising bass power of the theorbo, a sound similar to an orchestral harp in its lower register.
The bright, silvery, largely vibratoless tone of Podger’s instrument, a Genoese violin made in 1739, would be totally unsuitable for Brahms or Tchaikovsky but illuminates perfectly the spirit and emotional acuity of the wide-ranging program material. Likewise, the harpsichord employs an equal temperament tuning that can sound slightly sour to modern ears at first—after a few minutes, you wouldn’t have it any other way. Channel’s recording is nicely detailed but the group is regarded, sonically, at a respectful distance. There’s loads of air around the players and the size of each instrument is faithfully reproduced. Even now, there are still traditionalists that remain suspicious of historically informed performance practice; they need to hear such thoroughly engaging performances as these. These pearls are real gems.