Sunday, December 6, 2020

Jennifer Koh wraps up her examination of solo Bach juxtaposed with modern works

 The "Bach & Beyond" series that the wide-ranging American violinist Jennifer Koh launched in 2012 has

Jennifer Koh explores Bach et al.

now finished with the third and final album (Cedille Records). Not surprisingly, it ends the series with distinction, setting on two discs J.S. Bach's solo sonatas Nos. 2 and 3 beside (respectively) Luciano Berio's "Sequenza VIII" and John Harbison's "For Violin Alone."

To get to the Bach performances first: It's amazing how much lyricism she finds in the music. All the contrapuntal implications don't swamp the elucidation she gives to the composer's melodic savvy. Each sonata contains a demanding fugue, and there Koh clearly lays everything out, line by line. Her rhythmically secure playing avoids suggesting that her approach is either too calculated or too swayed by the moment.

In the fugue movement of the A minor sonata, I  hope it's not too fanciful to hear in the repeated two- and three-note figures that seem to answer the unfolding of the main material an independence of utterance that evokes the call-and-response patterns of much black American music. 

It's as if Bach predicted how a kind of bounce off short response figures helps animate the tune (in fugue terms, the subject). The analogy took shape for me after I heard an NPR interview with blues scholar Peter Guralnick, who traced the origin of Ray Charles' breakout hit "I Got a Woman" to a song by a black gospel group (the Southern Tones, "It Must Be Jesus") that had a similarly brief vocal response to fill spaces between lines of the tune.

What's relevant here is that Koh gives integrity to even momentary changes in register and weight to each response to the "call." These support the overall structure while not disappearing within it. When they are repeated or slightly varied, they retain the individuality with which they were first uttered.

And when echo phrases are part of Bach's organization, as in the Allegro movement that concludes the A minor sonata, Koh doesn't overemphasize them. It's sufficient to hear what their expressive intention is without having the contrast highlighted. She avoids the kind of stress that Glenn Gould, with characteristic severity, would have called "theatrical." She concludes the A minor with an apt maestoso broadening of tempo that only a prim musical Puritan could object to.

The C major sonata, placed at the end of the second disc, includes a more challenging fugue. Having heard this sonata numerous times in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, I can say it's not unusual for a performance to betray the effort needed to maintain clarity and avoid roughness. I'm reminded of the perceptive comment of a renowned concert violinist whose name escapes me: "Whenever someone comes up to me after a concert and says, 'I could tell you worked really hard on that,' I know I've given a bad performance." No suggestion of such risky brinkmanship is evident in Koh's superb playing of this fugue.

Now to the companion pieces: Berio's "Sequenza," one of a series for solo instruments, develops from digging into "A" and "B," and those two pitches exfoliate over the work's 15-minute, 40-second span. There is  shrewdly distributed ornamentation off such initial hard hitting, and eventually lyrical effusions. Especially exciting is an ascent to a perpetual-motion  episode with harsh punctuation before the etude-like composition concludes.

Harbison's piece, a survey of readily appreciable short forms identified by the seven movement titles, will have broader appeal, no doubt.  Like Bach, Harbison necessarily drives home his main points with sequences and echo phrases, as in "Dance 1."  After an exquisitely phrased, wistful "Air," then a "March" whose insistent, accented line has pauses suggesting an ironic commitment to martial values, Koh illuminates "Dance 2." This one suggests choreography, evoking balletic extensions, turning, leaps and, with accelerating passagework, sweeps across the stage. The movement could well be taken up by dancers, although an imaginative choreographer might draw much inspiration from the entire suite.

Until then, this world-premiere recording ought to impress the armchair listener with the zest and commitment evident in Koh's performance. "For Violin Alone" may be destined for long life even if the recital stage remains its only venue — given an artist of this caliber. And the three "Bach & Beyond" albums will endure as a recording project at the heights of 21st-century violin playing.



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