Eelco Grimm’s Channel Classics Favorites 4 – Rachel Podger, Guardian Angel

In my ‘Favorites’ blog of last month I wrote about my Sonology studies. Many of my hardcore electronic music teachers did not care much for ‘romantic’ 19th century music, but without exception they admired Johann Sebastian Bach. And rightly so, of course. Bach is an immeasurably large musical monument. He has been in my life from my earliest childhood. In the form of various LPs that my parents played, and of the annual St. Matthew Passion on the radio, which my parents enthusiastically enjoyed. But also by playing Bach myself on piano. In a miraculous way, Bach’s music always survives. A mediocre performance can already be moving, a good performance can touch you to the depths of both your mind and your soul. 

Bach marked the end of the Baroque era and the contrapuntal polyphony reached its peak with him. For some time, Bachs greatness may have overshadowed the music that preceded him. It wasn’t until the 1960s that musicians returned to playing Baroque on authentic instruments to get a glimpse of what it must have sounded like back then. This ‘historically informed performance’ started out quite strict but became looser, more swinging and infectious over time. In the 80s it was already quite engaging and I vividly remember how a bizarre baroque recording introduced me to high end audio. That was the famous “La Folia de Spagna” by Atrium Musicae de Madrid, conducted by Gregorio Paniagua. At my local shop Multifoon in Delft I heard how crazy dynamic this LP could sound and of course how the harpsichord was eventually threatened by a chainsaw… Unforgettable madness.

La Folia offered me a true high end experience.

Baroque continued to fascinate me and I couldn’t believe my luck when I had the opportunity in 2000 to record an SACD called Exceptional Masterpieces with one of the finest Dutch baroque ensembles, Combattimento Consort Amsterdam. The album was reissued a few years ago on Native DSD and can be downloaded there for those interested. One of the core pieces on that album is a work for two viola d’amores and basso continuo by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. The antique viola d’amores sound great and exotic but are rightfully extinct as we had to stop every few minutes to re-tune them. Thanks to modern editing techniques, none of this can be heard on the album and Biber’s piece remains unique to hear after all these years. Not least thanks to the vibrant playing of Jan Willem de Vriend and his colleagues.

The head of a viola d’amore on the cover of my Exceptional Masterpieces recording of 2000.

Several years ago, when a good friend enthusiastically told me about how wonderful violinist Rachel Podger played Biber on Channel Classics’ “Rosary Sonatas”, my interest was understandably raised. It turned out to be a very special record that quickly became one of my favorites. Podger and her ensemble play the famous 15 “Mystery Sonatas” by Biber, for violin and basso continuo. In analogy with the suffering of Christ, Biber explores the boundaries of the violin and violinist by having these sonatas played in no fewer than 14 different ‘scordatura’ tunings. Each piece requires tuning the violin to a different setting and the use of corresponding fingerings. The urge for musical experiments during the Baroque era continues to fascinate.

However fascinating and contemplative the Rosary Sonatas as a whole may be, time and again my attention was drawn to the last piece on the album, which features the violin solo as a kind of encore. It is a Passacaglia called “Guardian Angel”. In a Passacaglia, a relatively simple theme is elaborated in various variations, essentially as it happens in the La Folia piece mentioned above, but in a more serious mood. Rachel Podger enchants me time and again with her beautiful performance of this composition by Biber. The recording turned out to be taken from another album of hers, named after this piece: Guardian Angel. And it is this album that I want to recommend this month as my “Favorite”. Throughout the whole album Rachel Podger plays on her own, moving, powerful, intense and intimate. You can hardly get closer to the soul of music.

The opening is surprisingly a Partita by Bach for solo flute, which Rachel has transposed to G minor for solo violin. And of course Bach should not be missing in this mini series of my favorites… The sound of this recording is simply breathtaking, I hope the Grimm Audio AD1 has contributed a little bit to that. As far as I am concerned, this album belongs in everyone’s collection.

Eelco Grimm

You can purchase Guardian Angel with a 15% discount at NativeDSD. Use voucher code GRIMM for this.