San Francisco Classical Voice
By Michelle Dulak Thomson
March 9, 2010
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Going It Alone

Unaccompanied violin recitals are sufficiently rare that the image and bio of Jennifer Koh’s longtime recital partner, pianist Reiko Uchida, made it into the printed program of last Tuesday’s Herbst Theatre recital before San Francisco Performances staff realized their mistake. It would be misleading to say that Uchida (a very fine pianist) was not missed. But Koh by herself was amply capable of holding anyone’s attention.

It’s instinctively “right,” if daunting, to begin and end a solo violin program with Bach. Koh opened with the E-Major Partita (BWV 1006) and closed with the D-Minor (BWV 1004), and it was clear from the first notes of the former’s Preludio that she had nothing to fear from the test she’d set herself.

Granted, the Preludio is a showpiece, all fast bowing and fingerwork and bariolage; the tough stuff comes later. Yet even in the Preludio, Koh was astonishing. It takes nerve and brains, as well as technical control, to shape that movement as finely as she did. Articulation and dynamic went hand in hand. The loudest places were flat on-the-string, the quietest distinctly off-the-string, the transition point undetectable.

The succeeding movements were played with the sort of natural eloquence that hardly anyone can manage in solo Bach while jumping the technical hurdles. Bach wickedly put the Loure — a French Baroque dance, and the most difficult movement in the work — right after the Preludio; the violinist has to adjust rapidly to the slow meter and the stately mien, and then hit an unforgiving lot of double- and triple-stops with an appearance of effortless grace. (This work being, on balance, the easiest of the Sonatas and Partitas, nearly every talented young violin student is assigned it, blazes through the Preludio, and immediately thereafter comes to grief.)

Koh’s Loure was the stuff of my imagination: serene, measured, clear, with all the beats weighted in proportion, played with neither struggle nor hurry. The Gavotte en rondeau that follows it was as fine. Most violinists play the opening rondeau theme at full volume. Koh didn’t; hers was light and playful, as were the first couple of episodes. Volume grew through them, however, and eventually she was playing at full strength. When she did play the theme full out (the fourth or fifth iteration), you heard the genuine clarity and ruthlessness of her chord technique for the first time, and thought forward to the D-Minor Ciaccona. The succeeding, lighter dance movements were less original, but good: crisp, bright, neatly turned out.

Koh moved from one movement to the next with scarcely a pause, accustoming the audience to the swift succession of moods. That’s doubtless her preferred approach to the Bach Partitas (she did the same in the D-Minor later in the evening), but it made for a terrific theatrical coup. After the last movement of the E-Major, Koh ripped into the following Ysaÿe Sonata (Op. 27/2) almost instantly.

Obsessive Circling

Those who know the piece will see why this was perfect. Eugéne Ysaÿe’s six solo violin sonatas are each dedicated to a particular fellow violinist. No. 2 was for Jacques Thibaud, and is subtitled “Obsession.” The main “obsession” is the Dies Irae chant, which turns up all through the four movements; but a subsidiary one is ... the Preludio from Bach’s E-Major Partita, which was apparently Thibaud’s favorite warm-up material. The first movement begins with the initial notes of the Bach, breaks off and utters a savage aside, takes up the Bach again, and so on.

Koh discusses "Bach and Beyond"

Koh’s was an unusually pungent performance. She took less advantage than do most violinists of the (relatively few) places to ease off on the tension. Even the “Danse des ombres” (Dance of the shades), with its quiet pizzicato opening, kept an audible edge: The plucking may have been quiet, but there was the sharp sound of fingernail in it. Neither the shades nor anything else rested easy.
The rest of the first half was a swift roundelay of new music. Two short pieces, each memorials to other composers, demonstrated in their different ways that it’s possible to write powerful music for a solo string instrument without forcing the player to imitate an orchestra. Kaija Saariaho’s Nocturne, in Memory of Witold Lutoslawski is all subtleties, shifts of tone color and pitch and inflection; Elliott Carter’s Remembering Roger (the late composer Roger Sessions) is a frantic four minutes of leaping around the fingerboard, though with a kind of cogency that Koh’s surefootedness reinforced.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Lachen verlernt followed. The piece is a “concerto for solo violin” co-commissioned by Koh, and here provided with video accompaniment by Tal Rosner. I am eager to hear the music on its own, because in the event I was pretty much preoccupied with the way the images tracked it. Rosner’s video is almost entirely abstract. Crossed electrical cables at the beginning are meant (so says the artist) to suggest violin strings; later come static and “snow” (of the TV variety), along with dim glimpses of a city.

Ingenious, Mirroring Visuals

But all of this moves, as it were, to Koh’s bow arm. It was hard not to suspect Rosner of some violin-playing experience himself, given the uncanny way in which the cinematography and the playing tracked one another. A shift or a change of string would spin or twist what you saw; a change of tone would transform it. It’s the first time I have seen a multimedia presentation that didn’t simply irritate me, one whose music and visuals didn’t seem useless to one another. This was abstract enough visually to mesh with the abstraction of the music, but also acute enough to recognize, mirror, and enlarge the physical gestures essential to playing the music. It was ingenious.

And then, after intermission, came the rest of the Bach: the D-Minor Partita, in as magnificent a performance as I have ever heard live. Koh has a splendid suppleness and bite in her bowing; a dense, luminous sound; and the kind of shrewd dramatic instinct that lingers over some things but doesn’t go mawkish over anything. The Allemanda was fastish, yet so purposeful that you couldn’t feel the tempo as fast; the Corrente incredibly neat and pointed, with the couple of technically treacherous spots so nicely disguised that they might as well not have been there; the Sarabanda serene, pensive, and daringly quiet; the Giga fantastically clean and (like the E-major Preludio earlier) played with a minute gradation of articulation and dynamic that beggared belief.

And the concluding Ciaccona was a monumental performance — the great canvas slowly and surely unveiled, every variation leading with perfect logic into the next, every one of the long spans shaped with the sort of long-range planning that would seem cold-blooded if you were to see it laid out on paper rather than played. The world has many fine violinists, but not many who can do that.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.

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