By David Vernier
When Jennifer Koh plays, people listen. Or they should, especially when she offers a new program of solo works. This new one, a follow-up to Part 1 of her Bach & Beyond project (see reviews) continues her effort, in her words, “to strengthen the connection between our past and present worlds through a historical journey of solo violin works from Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas to contemporary and newly commissioned works.”
Part 1 is a single disc that features two Bach partitas along with works by Saariaho, Ysaÿe, and Missy Mazzoli, all of it demanding of ear and mind, yet readily accessible and rewarding even to listeners unaccustomed to solo violin repertoire. Part 2 is a two-disc set containing just four substantial works–requiring not only a greater investment of time, but inviting a particular curiosity about and receptivity to more adventurous explorations of solo-string technique and expression. In other words, aside from the Bach, this program is not for those looking for 90 minutes of familiar, “easy” listening.
Koh’s Bach is amazing as usual–so fluid and delivered with such a sensitively nuanced, confident authority. A personality emerges: is it Koh? is it Bach? It’s either or both, but ultimately, who cares? This is exceptional Bach playing–and in a movement such as the “moto perpetuo” Presto finale of the Sonata No. 1, Koh demonstrates not only the violin virtuoso’s mastery of technique–bow and fingers–but also shows how the true performing artist internalizes a piece to the point where notes impressed on a page are miraculously liberated and transformed into spontaneous expression.
The Bartók and Saariaho pieces are both born of Bach’s pioneering solo violin works as well as inhabiting new worlds of their own, where the composers push ever further the limits of what can be asked and expected from a performer, while requiring new frames of reference and attention from the listener. As mentioned, these aren’t “easy” audience pieces, but knowing something about their origins and forms–well-described in notes by both Koh and Patrick Castillo–helps to focus our listening and sharpen our appreciation of the music in these two very different works.
Bach’s influence and inspiration is very evident in the Bartók, from the opening movements–Tempo di ciaccona; Fuga–to the lovely, expressive, singing style of the third-movement, “Melodia”. Of course, the composer has his very own way with the actual music, including the use of quarter-tones in the furious, flashy Presto final movement. Saariaho’s Frises goes far beyond imaginative use of harmonics, timbral effects, and quarter-tones, employing what seems like every possible sound-making device one can create with bow, strings, and wood–with some added electronics that, in Koh’s words, “transform the sound of the violin as it is being produced.” Although we don’t get any more detailed explanation of exactly how this works, you can definitely hear the effect, against sounds of scratching and scraping, sliding and tremulating and arpeggiating, echoing and chiming, double-stopping and wailing and plucking and whistling. This is really where the “beyond” of the disc’s title truly applies!
Throughout, Koh is in command, from the dazzling explications of the Bartók Fuga and Presto movements, to the sometimes frighteningly audacious dynamic and timbral assertions of the Saariaho. As a listener, I have to say that I’m not in love with all the music here, but as a violinist my enthusiastically positive impression of this recording is centered in admiration and appreciation of Koh’s artistry, in every sense, and in her commitment to finding new and meaningful ways to express it. The sound, from Westchester Studios in New York (Saariaho) and at the Performing Arts Center at SUNY/Purchase, even under the close scrutiny of headphone listening, maintains Cedille’s usual highest standard.
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