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Recital Media Review Print

Expressive and Impressive Solo Violin

December 24, 2012 - Williamsburg, MA:

Bach & Beyond, Part I, Jennifer Koh, violin. J.S. Bach: Partitas Nos. 2 in D minor, & 3 in E, S. 1004 & 1006; Missy Mazzoli: Dissolve, O My Heart (2010); Kaija Saariaho: Nocturne (1994); Eugène Ysaÿe: Sonata, Op. 27/2 (1924); Çedille 90000134, © 2012, TT 78:35, $16.

Most violinists who want to tackle the challenge of playing all six of J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas (three each) do so by simply presenting them all in order, Nos. 1 of each, followed by Nos. 2 and Nos. 3. Jennifer Koh decided to try a different approach, and developed three programs presenting two at a time together with works by other composers that were inspired by them or by another related work by JSB. This is the first of those programs.

The CD opens with Partita No. 3 and closes with No. 2. They enclose Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 2, followed by Saariaho’s Nocturne, and then by Mazzoli’s Dissolve, O My Heart, inspired by an aria of that title in Bach’s St. John’s Passion. This makes for a seemingly seamless cyclical interconnected and interlinked program that progresses nearly 300 years from 1718-1723 to 2010 and then heads back again without anything feeling harshly modern, although the Mazzoli and Saariaho are most definitely of our time, or out of place, the whole leading to the climax of the famous second Partita’s Chaconne, which also happens to be the longest track on the CD, nearly double the 8:13 of the Mazzoli. (For those unfamiliar with Mazzoli’s music, I recently heard a program on NPR that seemed to me an excellent introduction to her work and style even if it didn’t speak to this piece.) Saariaho’s piece, at 4:48, is the shortest work, though not the shortest track on the disk; the 1:30 Bourée of the Partita No. 3 has that distinction.

The Bach works were likely composed to challenge players technically, for practice rather than performance, and are more or less standard Baroque suites of dance-rhythm pieces. Ysaÿe (1858-1931), on the other hand, wrote his piece to be a technically difficult performance tour de force, though not in the brilliant sense. It was dedicated to Jacques Thibaud (1880-1953, then 44), not remembered today except by the older generations, but one of the greats in his time, often called the ‘king’ or ‘tsar’ of the violin, who formed with pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1932) and ’cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973), a world-renowned trio, and who founded with pianist and pedagogue Marguerite Long the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud International Competition that continues to this day. The work is not only inspired by but also quotes Bach’s Partita No. 3 in its opening bars, but then turns to the Dies Irae for its inspiration and mood; its movements are entitled: “Obsession: Prelude,” “Melancolia,” “Danse des Ombres [the Shades]: Sarabande,” and “Les furies,” so retain something of the Baroque dance rhythms, but its difficulties lie in the somber, slow expression, not in virtuosic display, so it is a tribute to Bach, but also to the dedicatee’s skills.

Saariaho (b. 1952) composed her Nocturne as a tribute to Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994). It, too, begins with the opening notes of Bach’s Partita No. 3, and is slow, sometimes nearly coming to a halt, and somber rather than brilliant and fast, tending to the strident at times, so also not easy to execute. The Mazzoli piece begins on a D minor chord, the key of Bach’s Partita No. 2 and the chord that opens its concluding Chaconne. It often lies in the lower registers of the instrument and is also technically demanding. It was commissioned by the LA Philharmonic; Koh played its première on 24 May 2011.

Koh seeks and finds the expressive, not the spectacular. She is technically impressive, bringing out the soul of all these lovely works without any exaggeration or sentimentalism. The pieces ask her to show off her chops in just about every technique imaginable, and they are impressive.  Her playing is quite simply stunning, and the program is strikingly beautiful in spite of (or perhaps because of?) its predominantly serious nature. The recorded sound is as spectacular as the program; kudos to Bill Maylone. The recording venue was the American Academy of Arts and Letters in NYC.

The accompanying booklet is the usual Çedille ultra-high quality product. Its cover features a close-up of Koh playing, eyes closed; credits are on its inside, with the track listing and timings on page 3. A “Personal Statement” from Koh, in contrasting color with white text on a light brown background, occupies the page 4-5 opening, followed by brief, but informed and well written program notes by Alison Ames, who formerly worked for Deutsche Grammophon, on pages 6-9, and a bio of Koh on the page 10-11 opening. The back cover, also white text on light brown, shows other Çedille recordings by Koh. I missed only info about her instrument.

This is perhaps the finest solo violin recital CD that I have ever heard.  I look forward eagerly to Parts 2 and 3.

Note: Jennifer Koh's Bach & Beyond Part 1 has been named in the New York Times' list of Best Classical Recordings of 2012.