QUEEN of the baroque violin Rachel Podger follows up her Bach sonata guest soloist performance for the Yorkshire Bach Choir a fortnight ago with a return to York on Friday night with Brecon Baroque.

Rachel will be directing her eight-piece band of early musicians in The Glories Of Venice, the sold-out opening concert of the 2018 York Early Music Festival at the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York.

Their 7.30pm programme will take in Vivaldi's Sonata in E flat major, Lute Concerto in D major and Violin Concerto in D major (Il Grosso Mogul) and Bach's Harpsichord Concerto in D, climaxing with The Four Seasons, the best known of Vivaldi's violin concertos.

Friday's concert forms part of Podger's triumphant 50th birthday year, a year when her latest Vivaldi disc, featuring her take on Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) with Brecon Baroque, has topped the classical charts.

She greatly enjoyed last month's engagement with the Yorkshire Bach Choir at St Michael-le-Belfrey, where she was accompanied by the choir's director, Peter Seymour, on harpsichord. "I've played quite a bit with Peter over the years but never at a Yorkshire Bach Choir concert," says Rachel. "Peter asked me whether I'd come to York to do a 'sorbet'. The Bach C minor Sonata that we did is actually pretty meaty, with a really intense fugue, and the other Bach piece was lively and jolly. That was part of the idea of doing those works, to provide contrast and variety, and playing with Peter is always fun," she says.

"And I remember playing at St Michael-le-Belfrey before, a few years ago, with Liz Kenny's group,Theatre Of The Ayre, basically a chamber group, directed by Liz from the lute, in a semi-circle, which was a delightful experience."

Likewise Rachel has "a lot fun doing Vivaldi pieces" with Brecon Baroque. "I think it was 2006/2007 that we started, so we've been going for a while," she says. "It happened because I was doing the Brecon Festival, where I live in Wales. The festival has Georgian themes, walks and talks and I was asked to take on the festival as the musical director, so I've been doing that for a while and it goes from strength to strength, and I decided to get my favourite musicians together in a group as Brecon Baroque.

"We're going from strength to strength too, though maybe we could be busier but I'm busy with other things, as is everyone, so it's a lot of fun when we do meet up."

Rachel is joined in Brecon Baroque by fellow violinists Sabine Stoffer and Henry Tong; Jane Rogers on viola; Alison McGillivray on cello; Jan Spencer on bass, Daniele Caminiti on lute, and Marci Swiatkiewicz on harpsichord, as heard on their new Vivaldi long player, Le Quattro Stagioni.

How did Rachel freshen up such a familiar, indeed over-familiar work? "My attitude to that was to go back to basics, to see what strikes you from the score, as if you had never heard it before," she says. "That way, you look at it completely afresh, even though that's difficult because we all grow up with this piece, and these things linger inside you.

"It's hard not to be 'programmed' by past experience of any work, but if it's of a high quality then it will always stand up to the test of time. The invention in The Four Seasons is like a fantastically well written poem where every word has meaning, and Vivaldi never runs out of ideas. That's why it's so beautiful, but we know it almost too well, so you have to strip it back.

"I like to work on it in a small group, where I don't need to dominate and I can just see what happens. The joy of doing it that way – and the challenge – is to be open to it and to what everyone can bring to it."

Should you be wondering from where Vivaldi drew his inspiration for his best-known composition, Rachel says: "Vivaldi wrote it most probably in Mantua, not in Venice, where he was working for the Bohemian court. There were four statues in the courtyard depicting the four seasons, and they may well have inspired him."

Rachel has a diary typically full of engagements in 2018 beyond "the lovely surprise party with a raucous ceilidh" that marked her 50th birthday at the end of May. "I did a recital in Japan on Sunday, then I play in Germany, then fly in for the York concert, so it's a crazy week – and the next day I have to get back home for my eldest daughter's prize day when she's playing in a string quartet," she says

Four Seasons in one concert, and four places in one week, welcome to Rachel Podger's world.

The 2018 York Early Music Festival runs from Friday to July 14 with a theme of Power & Politics. The full programme and ticket details can be found at ncem.co.uk/yemf; tickets also can be booked on 01904 658338.

Charles Hutchinson