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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Concert Review: Because It's There

Kyung-Wha Chung plays Bach.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Mountan ear: Kyung-Wha Chung and friend.
Photo from ICA courtesy International Classical Artists.
When Johann Sebastian Bach, a superb violinist, wrote the six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, he intended for these works to be an instructional tool, a manual to challenge students and further their abilities on the stringed instrument. It was not until the 19th century (when the works were first published) and the rise of the string virtuoso that playing all six works, in a public recital became a challenge that appealed to every violinist looking to establish or further their reputation.

It is with that in mind that we turn to Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, and the return of violinist Kyung-Wha Chung to its hallowed stage. Ms. Chung, who recorded these works in 2014 faced a Herculean task: the performance of these six works in their traditional order, alternating sonatas and partitas (dance suites). Although she performed on a bare stage with just a piano bench and a woven rug for company, this was very much a high wire act without a net. Performing these works (or listening to them for three hours) is not for everybody, but with this concert, the violinist showed that her chops and more importantly, her humanity as an artist are definitely intact.

It started well, as she bit cleanly into the opening G minor sonata. Its mournful textures filled the hall, with the lament of its opening Adagio showing her instrument's uncanny ability to mimic a cry of anguish. The first Fugue was both repetitive and obsessive, as she built Bach's dense structures of sound, only to tear them down and begin again from scratch. The Siciliana brought some relief in the form of Vivaldi-esque lyricism while the closing Presto was pure technique, already pushing the artist to her limit.

The Partita No. 1 would be brief, had Bach not challenged his players to double and elaborate on each theme, much in the manner of a da capo opera aria. Ms. Chung met each of these dance forms head-on, with her best playing coming in the slow, majestic Sarabande and the closing Bourée. Her tone also improved, becoming warmer and less astringent as her muscles warmed up to the murderous task that awaited.

The second pairing of the Sonata No. 2 in A minor and the Partita No. 2 in D minor has the greatest pitfall for any violinist. This comes in the latter's final movement, a 64-part chaconne that forces the player to take a simple theme through that many variations in the pursuit of an (eventual) transition into a major key. It is heroic and athletic, and Ms. Chung was both, despite fatigue and technical flaws that were creeping into the performance.

With the Sonata No. 3 in C Major, the wheels came off. The disaster happened at the start of this work's Fugue. Ms. Chung played the descending opening and stopped. Something wasn't right. She took a moment, focused and started again but the damage had been done. Technical issues re-emerged. In the slowest passages, she sounded tired, and phrasing that had been crisp and clear in the second pair of works now sounded strained and blurred. She made it through this wilderness to the safer shores of the last two movements, but the problems in this performance stayed with the listener.

The final Partita in this cycle is a gift, both to the audience who have sat stolidly through the first five works (and npt left after the the roller-coaster Chaconne) and the player, who can use this sunny and delightful music as an extra tank of energy needed to finish the set. Ms. Chung sounded terrific in this final set of seven short movements, bringing herself, the evening and her instrument up into the light in spectacular and agile fashion. 

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