Facing the music: Rachel Podger – The Guardian

What was the first record you bought?

I think it must have been Mozart Violin Concertos with Anne-Sophie Mutter with Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker. I remember staring at the cover of the LP, a photo of Anne Sophie at 16, so pretty and serious and committed next to the silver-haired Karajan with his Hollywood actor look (I always thought he looked a bit like James Dean!). Her playing was perfect for creating joy in a shy 11-year-old (who wanted to be like her…!).

What was the last piece of music you bought?

A score of the Concerti Grossi by Pietro Castrucci. We’re performing one of them in my Brecon Baroque Festival this year which as its theme has music played in London in the 17th and 18th centuries. He was a brilliant Italian violinist who studied with Corelli in Rome and who, like many other Italians, emigrating to London to play for his living. He is apparently the violinist depicted in the famous engraving by Hogarth of the Enraged Musician – what a brilliantly chaotic scene – practising with all that noise outside the window would drive anyone mad!

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?

I do love singing – in fact when I was growing up, it was always thought that I’d be the singer and Julian my brother – who is a singer – the violinist. These days I’ll sing secretly in the car when driving on my own – pieces I remember learning in my father’s choir in Kassel, Germany, where I grew up as a teenager: Byrd masses, Ave Verum Corpus being a favourite, Beati by Stanford, Britten’s Te Deum, Allegri’s Miserere (yes, I sang the top C back then!), Vaughan Williams’s Shakespeare Songs and lots of folk songs and arrangements, a favourite of those being Ca the yowes by Vaughan Williams. I remember one summer holiday as a teenager singing it on a mountainside in Scotland with Julian and three German friends from school, watching a sunset. Wow, that’s a long time ago, but that beautiful feeling of stillness and nostalgia in that setting and that folk tune has stayed with me.

If you had time to learn a new instrument, what would it be?

The harp. Tim (my partner) bought me a beautiful Welsh smallish harp a few years ago, and I haven’t had a minute to learn it properly, and there’s always something to learn on the violin…

Did you ever consider a career outside of music? Doing what?

Probably something else creative. Education perhaps as I love being around children. Music was in my life from the word go however, and I didn’t really question whether I was going to “do music”, I just carried on from when I was a youngster.

What single thing would improve the format of the classical concert?

More communication with the audience. Firstly through playing of course. If you’re not moved by what you’re playing, the audience will not be moved either. But by talking as well. If and when I speak during a concert the vibe in the hall changes dramatically, especially if there’s a joke in there (a successful one that is!). I remember the first concert I dared do this I was much more nervous of saying anything than I was of playing, but it’s got easier, it seems to somehow enhance the enjoyment of an audience if you communicate with words what the music means to you.

If you had to pick one work to introduce someone to the wonders of classical music, what would it be?

Probably Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony – it shocked and amazed listeners at the time and is strikingly colourful, beautiful and so engaging. But then there’s also Schubert’s Unfinished, and there’s Bach’s B minor Mass … but you did say “one” work.

Which conductor or performer of the past would you like to have worked with?

I’d like to have played in Corelli’s orchestra. Apparently he was strict and inspiring at the same time and his particular passion was how to produce a beautiful sound on the violin. Apparently when you auditioned for his orchestra in Rome you had to play and hold a long note to a count of 10 without wavering your sound quality or dynamic!

What’s the most unusual place/venue you’ve performed?

I remember playing Bach’s Matthew Passion in a cave on Lanzarotte with Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert which was surreal. But actually thinking of the Matthew Passion, the strangest mixed up emotional feeling I ever had was performing it on an Easter Sunday in Jerusalem with Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Players.

What’s been your most memorable live music experience as an audience member?

Standing towards the front of the Arena at the Royal Albert Hall (after queueing all day of course) listening to Viktoria Mullova play the Sibelius Violin Concerto. She had such utter control over what she was doing, a beautiful, steely and penetrating sound and the best characterisation of that piece I’d ever heard. It completely stunned me and widened my horizons hugely.

We’re giving you a time machine: what period, or moment in musical history, would you travel to and why?

Back to Bach! I would love to have sat next to him (unobtrusively of course) on his organ bench in the Thomas Kirche in Leipzig when he improvised. That really would be heaven.

Which non-classical musician would you like to work with?

Keith Jarrett – with his mind glowingly brilliant, moving and free improvising ability.

What’s the most overrated classical work? – ie is there a warhorse whose appeal you really don’t relate to?

That Rodrigo guitar concerto. I love the sound of the guitar (not least since my mother used to sing me to sleep playing and singing with her guitar), but somehow the intense taking-yourself-too-seriously thing which that piece seems to encourage is not what I feel music and performing it is about.

It’s late, you’ve had a few beers, you’re in a Karaoke bar. What do you choose to sing?

Bob Marley’s I wanna love ya

Rachel Podger is the founder and artist director of the Brecon Baroque festival, which runs from 21-24 October.

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