December 24, 2020


Bach & Beyond, Part I—Bach: Partitas Nos. 2 and 3, BWV 1004 and 1006; Eugène Ysaÿe: Sonata No. 2; Kaija Saariaho: Nocturne; Missy Mazzoli: Dissolve, O My Heart. Jennifer Koh, violin. Cedille. $16.

Bach & Beyond, Part 2—Bach: Sonata No. 1, BWV 1001; Partita No. 1, BWV 1002; Bartók: Sonata for Solo Violin; Kaija Saariaho: Frises. Jennifer Koh, violin. Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).

Bach & Beyond, Part 3—Bach: Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3, BWV 1003 and 1005; Luciano Berio: Sequenza VIII; John Harbison: For Violin Alone. Jennifer Koh, violin. Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).

     It is scarcely news that Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006, are seminal compositions for the violin and, in many ways, for classical music as a whole. It is not news that they have been arranged for many other instruments – Bach himself apparently played them as keyboard works; Brahms did a partial transcription for piano left hand, Busoni for piano solo, Marcel Dupré for organ, and so on and on and on. And it is not news that these pieces have been enormously influential both on later composers (notably Bartók and Eugène Ysaÿe) and on innumerable violinists, both those using modern instruments and those opting for Baroque violin. Nevertheless, Jennifer Koh’s approach to these works, in a series of recordings on the Cedille label, is noteworthy and genuinely new – and while it will scarcely be to the taste of Bach purists and cannot be recommended as a first choice for those interested in owning this repertoire, it is an exceptionally interesting and very, very personal attempt to absorb this music and provide it with a context that is meaningful to Koh (and hopefully, through her, to others) 300 years after the works were created.

     Nothing is traditional or particularly historically informed in Koh’s performances, but they are all exceptionally well played and delivered with enthusiasm, rhythmic vitality, a strong sense of the structure of the music, and – most importantly – determination to place Bach’s works in a context that Koh has chosen carefully and that includes, among other works, pieces composed especially for her. The six buildings blocks of Bach’s series are disassembled and used by Koh as component parts of her own structure. The first entry in “Bach & Beyond” opens with Partita No. 3 and concludes with Partita No. 2; the second starts with Sonata No. 1 and finishes with Partita No. 1; and the third begins with Sonata No. 2 and ends with Sonata No. 3. This is a complete hodgepodge of presentation if one cares about the way Bach ordered these works and about their relationship in terms of key structure (G minor, B minor, A minor, D minor, C major, E major). But it is inescapably true that what interests Koh is something else, something beyond the internal workings of the individual Bach works and the intersections among them. Her focus is as much on the pieces she plays between the opening and closing elements of each “Bach and Beyond” volume as it is on Bach’s own music.

     Thus, Koh’s entire sequence starts with the very last of Bach’s six works, emphasizing her notion that Bach was a starting point for much that would come later. Right after the concluding notes of the Gigue from Partita No. 3, which Koh plays with considerable verve, she enters into Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 2 of 1924, whose first notes are identical to those of the Prelude to Bach’s Partita No. 3 but whose atmosphere is very different and whose exploration of tonality and violin capabilities also differs significantly: this is a work with movements marked Obsession—Prelude; Malincolia; Danse des Ombres—Sarabande; and Les furies. The influence of Bach on this music is undoubted and, indeed, obvious, but Ysaÿe’s handling of the material is even further removed from Bach’s sensibilities than would be expected in a work written two centuries after Bach’s. Koh then offers the Nocturne, in Memory of Witold Lutoslawski by Kaija Saariaho (born 1952), which contains only a passing reference to Bach; and then Dissolve, O My Heart by Missy Mazzoli (born 1980) – a work written for Koh, who premièred it in 2011, and again one with only slight ties to Bach, although those are clearer than in Saariaho’s piece. After all this material, Koh returns to Bach for Partita No. 2, which ends with the massive and always impressive Ciaccona that is a highlight of the entire set of Bach’s solo-violin works. Koh plays the whole partita skillfully and effectively, but it comes as something of an afterthought when handled out of context this way – although Koh’s performance of the Ciaccona is undeniably impressive.

     The second “Bach & Beyond” volume offers more-interesting material between the two Bach bookends. After the fine fiddling with which Koh concludes the final Presto movement of Sonata No. 1, she moves into the 1944 Sonata for Solo Violin by Bartók – a work with considerable heft in its own right as well as one whose ties to Bach are clear from its movements’ designations: Tempa di ciaccona, Fuga, Melodia and Presto. Hearing how Bartók, near the end of his life, expressed himself in Bach-like ways, while still stamping the sonata with his own sensibilities, is both a moving experience and an intellectually bracing one. However, there is considerably less Bach and less of interest in the work that follows, another Saariaho piece called Frises, composed for violin and electronics. Another world première recording, this certainly reflects Koh’s personal commitment to the music of this composer, but the work is much too long (21 minutes) and sounds much too much like other acoustic-plus-electronic pieces to provide evidence of original compositional thinking, much less of tie-ins to Bach: it is simply self-indulgent. Koh, of course, is welcome to indulge herself in constructing such a personalized experience as “Bach & Beyond,” but this specific piece does very little to connect Bach’s music with that of later centuries. Therefore, when Koh moves to the concluding work in this second part of “Bach & Beyond,” the Partita No. 1, the shift in sound and expressiveness is particularly welcome. The seventh of this work’s eight movements, Tempo di Borea, is a particular highlight for its delicacy and sprightliness.

     The third “Bach & Beyond” volume again has intriguing works sandwiched between the two Bach offerings. After playing Bach’s Sonata No. 3, Koh moves into a 1976 Luciano Berio work, Sequenza VIII, which the composer structures using chaconne-like techniques. Interestingly, this piece is about the same length as the famous Bach Ciaccona from Partita No. 2, although not juxtaposed with that work by Koh. The Berio material is not self-consciously contemporary even though it most assuredly has the sound of a modern work and uses up-to-date techniques – including violin expectations that build on those of Bach. Going back to Bach immediately after this Berio work would provide a highly intriguing contrast, but in line with the overall structure of “Bach & Beyond,” Koh does not do that, instead moving to another modern piece – the world première recording of For Violin Alone by John Harbison (born 1938), a work written specifically for Koh. This seven-movement dance suite is a particularly welcome element of “Bach & Beyond,” very clearly derived structurally from Bach’s music but equally clearly adapting all the major elements of it (themes, rhythms, tonality and more) to a contemporary violin idiom. Harbison does not adhere to Bach-derived movement titles or forms – the middle movement of this suite, for example, is a decidedly un-march-like march – but his debt to Bach’s approach to violin writing and playing is clear throughout. Harbison’s short concluding Epilogue comes across as a quiet farewell to Bach’s style and era – making Koh’s next move, into the opening Adagio of Sonata No. 3 in the bright key of C, all the more effective. Whatever the merits of separating and mixing up the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin as Koh has done may be – and the decision is certainly a debatable one – this particular contrast is highly effective. The justly famous Fuga of this Bach sonata comes across particularly well in Koh’s sensitive and well-paced performance, and the final two movements, Largo and Allegro assai, end up sounding like summations and encores for the entire “Bach & Beyond” series. This is scarcely what Bach planned or intended for these movements or for the totality of this fifth of the sixth elements in BWV 1001-1006, but in the context that Koh has created, this conclusion works very well. The entire “Bach & Beyond” series – which needs to be heard as a totality to attain its full effect – is a testimonial to the effect of Bach’s music on Koh, more than to its well-known effect on composers who came after Bach’s time. The elements that Koh mixes with Bach do not always work well, and the rearrangement of the six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin is an arguable one. But as an experiment in performance, presentation and juxtaposition of disparate material, “Bach & Beyond” is a fascinating endeavor. It is not for listeners unfamiliar with the Bach works around which it is built – but audiences who already know those works intimately and appreciate what Bach did with them will find Koh’s rethinking of the music thoughtful, stimulating and, much of the time, emotionally trenchant.

No comments:

Post a Comment