WINSTON-SALEM, NC – J. S. Bach (Germany, 1685-1750) wrote six works for unaccompanied violin in 1720 (although they were not published until 1802): three sonatas and three partitas. Since that time, almost every famous violinist has recorded them, some more than once; violinist George Enescu (Romani 1881-1955) considered the collection as “The Himalayas of violinists.”

Incidentally, the difference between the sonata de chiesa (church sonata) and the partita is that the former is in four movements with a slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement, while the latter is a collection of dance movements. Additionally, the first two movements of the sonatas are cast as a Prelude-Fugue structure, with the first movement serving as a slow introduction to the faster second movement.

The violinist for Wednesday night’s Secrest Artists Series concert of three of the six (the other three will be presented Friday night, February 23) was the distinguished Rachel Podger, who has been called “the unsurpassed British glory of the Baroque violin.” Her performance was, simply put, astounding and breathtaking. And her connection with the audience, both in playing and in talking, was intimate, informative, and clever.

She began the concert with Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001. The opening Adagio is primarily an ornamented melody with several chords providing harmonic support while the fugue’s short subject (theme) provides a virtuosic display of both independent lines as well multiple chordal accents. The third movement is Siciliana (a type of slow dance), which provides a lyric interlude. Following this is a brilliant, lickety-split romping Presto. A great showcase for both virtuoso flying fingers as well as bowing action.

One was immediately taken with Podger’s commitment to music-making at the highest level. Here and throughout the evening, she displayed captivating freedom coupled with amazing facility. Her playing had it all: flights of fancy, the ability to build to climaxes both with dynamics and rhythmic freedom that never distracted from her ability to maintain a sense of forward motion. Her violin was made by an Italian named Pezarini in 1739 “as far as we know!” (as she explained in a 2019 article in Strings magazine).

The Partita No. 1 in B Minor, BWV 1002 contains four dances, each followed by a “Double” or variation. The slow Allemanda (German dance) with jerky rhythms and accompanied with double- and triple-stop chords is followed by a contrasting, ornamental variation. The Corrente contains long, spinning melodic lines with a much faster variation. The Sarabande (a slow dance in triple meter) has an arching melody over chords. The Double is a slower melodic line. The concluding Bourée is a sturdy dance tune with strong chords. A fast single-line Double provides a conclusion that is both divergent and brilliant.
Before playing the final work on the program, Podger explained some of the details about the Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005, which contains a fiendishly difficult Fugue (“the longest one in Bach’s output,” according to the violinist). She alerted the audience that they would know when the Fugue subject returns.

The third Sonata has been called “a rather austere piece,” and the opening Adagio almost exclusively deals with an obsessive dotted-rhythm motive. The Fugue is a wonder to hear and goes on for more than 10 minutes. Podger clued the return of the subject by pausing for a second and smiling at the audience. The slow Largo provides a lyric juxtaposition and the finale Allegro assai is a non-stop rhythmic workout, expertly presented.

Anyone who loves violin and/or Bach would be well advised to go Friday night to the final three works to be performed by Podger. One seldom hears such a brilliant and gracious performer, scholar, and musician as she.