By Joshua Kosman
March 16, 2015
More than 250 years after his death, Bach’s music continues to be the primary reference point for any composer writing for solo violin. The use of polyphony, the rhetorical voice, the technical considerations — all of these and more shape the repertoire for the instrument.
The connections between Bach and his followers were on display Sunday afternoon during a largely gripping solo recital by Jennifer Koh, presented by Cal Performances in Berkeley’s Hertz Hall. By placing two of Bach’s Sonatas as frames for more recent works by Luciano Berio and John Harbison, Koh gave a demonstration of both the innate brilliance of Bach’s own writing and the far-reaching influence he has had.
The program was the third and final installment in Koh’s multiyear project “Bach and Beyond,” and the centerpiece this time was “For Violin Alone,” an alluring new score by John Harbison. Harbison is a composer for whom the tradition is always a living presence, and this new score, a co-commission by Cal Performances and two other presenters, shows the legacy of Bach at every turn.
One aspect of that influence is Harbison’s concentration on dance — not the specific Baroque dance forms that Bach uses, but a more abstract general approach that shows up in crisp rhythmic language and formal repetitions. The extravagantly lovely Air that sits at the center of the piece is a nod of sorts to the vocal side of Bach’s melodic inspiration, and the penultimate movement, titled “Duet,” evokes the intricacy and naturalness with which Bach combines different contrapuntal lines into a single texture.
Yet “For Violin Alone,” which runs about 20 minutes, is far from an act of mimicry or historical recapitulation. Harbison’s voice is distinctively contemporary throughout, particularly in the opening movement, “Ground,” which charts a series of variations on an intriguingly flexible harmonic theme. Koh’s performance was a marvel — tender, strong-limbed and full of tonal variety.
She made an equally potent case for Berio’s “Sequenza VIII” from 1977, with its slashing bow attacks and ferocious flurries of passagework. The energy that shapes this showpiece comes from the octaves and near-octaves that recur throughout as structural guideposts, with increasingly ornate sprays of notes placed in the intervals, and Koh charted both the work’s formal clarity and its dramatic explosiveness beautifully.
When it came to Bach himself, the afternoon was more of a mixed bag. Koh began the recital with a strangely restrained account of the A-Minor Sonata, marked by tonal precision and textural clarity but not much in the way of rhythmic propulsion. The reading sounded fastidious to a fault.
Fortunately, there was more vigor and direction after intermission, with a splendid rendition of the C-Major Sonata. The vast fugue that stands at the center of the work worked its magic, and the final Allegro served as an eloquent capper.
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