By Steven Ritter
December 31, 2012
Koh arrives at Bach with a studied determination and vibrant affectation.
I had been wondering when Jennifer Koh would get around to dipping her bow into Bach. The wunderkind from so many years ago has been wowing music aficionados for years, not igniting into a major record contract (like so many of the one-hit wonders the major labels tend to sign these days) but slowly building up a concert and recorded legacy that will no doubt last for a very long time. Koh is equally committed to the past and present, and her rich catalog reflects this desire to propagate both in a harmonious and logical manner that makes sense of where music was and where it is now.
Back in 2009 she developed a “Bach and Beyond” concept that she has been working on since, and the results of this idea have finally made it onto disc, the first of three that will cover the complete Bach Partitas and Sonatas, as well as complementary contemporary and other music that seeks to enlighten and expound on Bach’s opus. Koh is an artist that has performed the Bach violin works in toto in one concert, so you would think that her expertise in this music is something far beyond considerable.
And that proves the case—she is definitely a technical wiz in the music and plays an easy-moving and immaculate performance. The crystalline clarity of Partita 3 is breezy and so fluid that it almost seems mechanical—if not artificial—in places. Likewise the famous Chaconne from the D-minor; the ease of the bow and the impossibly even fast runs go by like a seagull caught on a swift updraft. If this makes her presentation seem devoid of emotion or character its only because her ideas about the composer lean more towards intensity of expression and clean finely-honed technique than any sort of emotional overcharge. For the entire world she sounds like a modern version of Henryk Szeryng—straightforward, no-nonsense, and as un-self serving as possible. Personally I like a little more hot sauce on my barbecue, but having been a Szeryng fan from some time back, I certainly get this approach.
The Ysaÿe Sonata takes its cue from the Third Partita and the dies irae. Wild, you say? You bet. But in only the madcap way that makes up so much of Ysaÿe’s world, he makes it work with deliciously vibrant writing that pays due respect to Bach while extending his virtuosity into very personal areas. The four movements are titled “Obsession”, “Malinconia”, “Dance of the Shades”, and “The Furies”. These two themes play off one another through each movement making for a tour-de-force of scintillating and exotic themes and developments.
The two modern works, Nocturne and Dissolve, O My Heart each take their turns through Bach as well, the latter starting up with the same D-minor chord that opens the Partita No. 2, and the former a more malignant, vibrant chaos that begins with the musings of Partita No. 3. Both are fine works that complement the Bach basics very nicely. Sound is close, resonant, and quite warm. I look forward to the conclusion of this series.
Bach & Beyond Part 1 is available both for digital download on iTunes and on CD
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