December 31, 2020


Eat That Frog! For Students: 22 Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Excel in School. By Brian Tracy with Anna Leinberger. Berrett-Kohler. $16.95.

     One of the greatest Warner Brothers cartoons did not feature a bunny (Bugs), duck (Daffy) or pig (Porky), but a frog (unnamed). One Froggy Evening (1955) is a parable about greed and a cautionary tale – and entirely wordless except for words from the frog itself. At a building site, a man finds a frog inside the cornerstone of a century-old building that is being demolished, and the frog starts to sing and dance with outstanding skill – leading the man to immediate dreams of immense riches. But it turns out that the frog only performs for him – whenever the man tries to get a talent agent or any sort of audience to observe the wonderful frog, the amphibian just sits there looking, well, froggy. After a series of misadventures and a stint in a psychiatric hospital for continuing to try to convince people of the frog’s wonderfulness, the man boxes up the creature and puts the box in the cornerstone of a new building. A hundred years later, as that building is being demolished, another man discovers the marvelous frog, and…well, that is the end, but not the end at all.

     So Eat That Frog! not only has an attention-getting title but also comes from a cartoonish teaching place of a sort: just look at the cover of the student version of the book, which shows a frog wearing a graduation cap and which is labeled as being “required eating.” OK, the notion of eating a harmless frog – the existence of frog’s legs on some restaurant menus notwithstanding – is really something of a turnoff, its “ick” factor higher than the “huh?” factor it uses to try to get readers’ attention. But Brian Tracy’s concept In his original book, of which the new student version is a spinoff created with Anna Leinberger, is actually simple enough. The idea is that if you had to eat a live frog the first thing in the morning, “you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.” (It is also the worst thing that is going to happen to the frog, but the book does not go there.) So this book could easily have been called “Worst Things First,” or something equally catchy, without victimizing the Rana genus or giving unpleasant ideas about comestibles to people who might do just fine with a bit of psychiatric care.

     The explanation of the title is that apparently something bizarre was called for to draw attention to what is foundationally a very simple concept, and scarcely an original one. The entire book, like the adult book from which it is derived, can be summed up in two words: Take control. This means asserting your power over the must-do things in your life by doing the hardest or most challenging one first. Evaluate everything based on difficulty; that is, using the frog metaphor, “if you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest [sic] one first. …[S]tart with the biggest, hardest, and most important task first.” And “if you have to eat a live frog at all, it doesn’t pay to sit and look at it for very long,” which translates to a “just do it” mentality: “Successful, effective people are those who launch directly into their major tasks and then discipline themselves to work steadily and single-mindedly until those tasks are complete.”

     Notice that apart from the frog references, there is nothing new, unusual, or particularly distinctive about any of this advice or any of these formulations. Tracy does have an annoying habit of making grammatical errors in his rush to communicate, not only writing “ugliest” when he means “uglier” but also, for instance, omitting the preposition when trying to position himself as someone who understands student struggles: “In fact, I didn’t even graduate [from] high school!” Still, the underlying ideas here are good, straightforward ones, and Tracy and Leinberger do a good job of refocusing them for student purposes (students even get an extra “way to stop procrastinating”: the book for adults has only 21, not 22).

     Eat That Frog! tells students to visualize what they want to be; develop self-confidence and self-esteem by overcoming fear; “take complete responsibility for yourself at all times”; set goals and write them down because the more you think about them, the faster you will attain them; and so forth. There is nothing wrong with any of this, and plenty that is right. And the specific implementation recommendations for the philosophical framework are well-put – for example, when it comes to goals, write them down in the present tense, state them only in positive form, and create them in the first person with the word “I” followed by a verb. Each chapter ends with a summation that incorporates specific things for readers to do – a format that, again, is nothing new, but one that serves self-help books well and works nicely for Eat That Frog! A chapter on planning, for example, says to “begin today to plan every day, week, month, and term in advance” (an overwhelming prospect), then makes the idea approachable by saying to start by making “a list of everything you have to do in the next twenty-four hours.” A chapter on breaking big tasks down into small pieces uses food (not frogs-as-food) metaphors, suggesting a “salami slice” approach to laying out tasks in multiple steps and then doing just one slice at a time – plus a “Swiss cheese” concept, in which “you resolve to work for a specific time period” on something you need to do. Readers may find salami-and-Swiss more palatable than live frogs; the idea, in any case, is to take matters that seem big to the point of being overwhelming and cut (or slice) them down to size so they become manageable bit by bit.

     There is nothing wrong with simplifying the complexity of life – a lot of self-help books do just that – and certainly nothing wrong with finding a clever, offbeat way to get people to pay attention to ideas that authors believe will help them. The specifics of what students will find in Eat That Frog! are scarcely unusual: concentrate your efforts on the 20% of activities that will likely account for 80% of your results; take at least one action to move a task forward even if you are not yet sure of what all the actions need to be; “be your own cheerleader” and “focus on the solution rather than the problem”; stop interruptions and distractions, which means managing technology appropriately and making it a servant rather than a master; deliberately put off low-value tasks so you can do high-value ones; and so on. These are essentially the same recommendations found in the non-student version of Eat That Frog! And that is fine, since these unexceptionable suggestions can be helpful to people of many ages, at many stages of life. Readers will find nothing especially new or revelatory in this book, but should be helped by it if they sit down with it, pay attention, chew the recommendations thoughtfully, and consume the elements that are of value. And this is not a long book or a difficult one to read, so it can be a fine, useful way to pass a froggy evening or two.


Cello 360. Christian-Pierre La Marca, cello. Naïve. $16.99.

Victoria Bond: Voices of Air; Jennifer Higdon: Legacy; Kevin Cerovich: Lawrence—In Memory of Lawrence Leathers; Raymond Premru: Felicity, from Two Pieces for Three Trombones; Brian E. Lynn: Ba-Dee-Doo-Dup; Norman Bolter: Ancient Twinkle Appearing; Paul Rudy: Awaken! JoDee Davis and Devin Bennett, trombones; Daniel Marion, bass trombone; Dan Velicer, piano. Albany Records. $16.99.

     There are some CDs whose main reason for being seems not to be the music—instead, the center of attention is the performer or performers, the intent being to showcase an individual, or several, who are especially skilled with their instruments, have especially interesting or unusual ideas about music, or something similar. These discs tend to have self-imposed limitations, since the musical selections reflect the individual (read: sometimes quirky) concepts of the performers and since the purpose of the recordings is to shine the spotlight on a specific person or group. Listeners not already enamored of that person or group may be less than enthralled – certainly it is not the musical itself that will draw them in. One entirely typical example of this sort of release is Cello 360, a Naïve recording that features Christian-Pierre La Marca playing 16 works of very varied provenance, some dating as far back as the early 17th century, others created in the 21st. There is no particular rhyme or reason to the sequence of material, and no special purpose for including two works by Marin Marais (1656-1728) while every other composer is represented by only one. The purpose of the disc is to highlight La Marca’s many musical interests and to offer snippets of his performance abilities in multiple forms. He proves to be a very fine cellist with a strictly modern orientation: even in Baroque music, he plays with strong emotion and plenty of vibrato, using a thoroughly modern cello. This only cements the concept of the CD as a reflection of the performer and a treat for his fans – but not a disc to consider on the basis of the music it includes. The first works offered here are older: one each by Jean de Sainte-Colombe (ca. 1640-1700) and John Dowland (1563-1626) – his familiar Lachrimae Antiquae – followed by the first of two from Marais, and then a work by Rameau (1683-1764). After those pieces from more or less the same time period, La Marca does a good deal of temporal jumping around. He moves to Le Chant des Oiseaux by Pablo Casals (1876-1973), then works by Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), Henry Purcell (1659-1695), György Ligeti (1923-2006), another by Marais, then ones by Telemann (1681-1767), Thierry Escaich (born 1965), Grieg (1843-1907), Giovanni Sollima (born 1962), Charles Chaplin (1889-1977), Lennon and McCartney, and finally something from La Marca himself. This mishmash of material is obviously aimed at letting listeners hear how adept La Marca is in music of all types from eras of all sorts; and it does that, to a certain extent – but at the expense of any depth whatsoever. La Marca certainly pulls considerable expressive potential from his cello – and that serves him very well in works such as Sollima’s Lamentatio, a highlight of the disc. His handling of newer music (including Ligeti’s Sonate pour Violoncello Seul) and works from more-popular idioms is assured and emotionally communicative. However, he is much less effective in the works of Dowland (whose tears should not flow this copiously), Rameau, Marais and Purcell: La Marca tends to overplay the music, trying to pull greater intensity from it than the composers included. The sensitivity that La Marca brings to the love theme from Chaplin’s Modern Times is ill-fitting when applied to Rameau and Telemann, and even in some modern works, such as the Lennon-McCartney Yesterday, La Marca simply pushes the music toward greater intensity than it can really encompass. The playing here is excellent from a technical standpoint, but the disc is simply a celebration of La Marca – with, curiously, a paucity of material from the Romantic era, into which his style would seem to fit well. La Marca is not a subtle performer – as evidenced, for instance, by his handling of Grieg’s Solveig’s Song – but is something of a showoff, with fine technique applied in equal measure to very different short pieces that deserve more-thoughtful interpretations, ones more suitable to their individuality and the times in which they were written, than they receive here.

     The focus is not as intensely on the primary performer on a new Albany Records release of contemporary music for trombone – but JoDee Davis’ virtuosity and her skill with modern trombone works remain better reasons to consider owning this disc than do the works she plays on it, most of which are not especially distinguished. The CD opens with Voices of Air (2019) by Victoria Bond (born 1945), a four-movement trombone-and-piano offering that proceeds from Breath in the first movement to Breathless in the last. Bond takes the trombone through pretty much its entire range in a piece that is certainly a showcase for performers – Davis handles it with considerable skill – but that comes across more as a demonstration of techniques than an involving musical presentation. Next is Legacy (2017) by Jennifer Higdon (born 1962), another trombone-and-piano piece. This is a slow and stately work that recalls the onetime use of trombones in church music, and Higdon shows impressive command of the trombone’s expressive potential. Next on the disc is a solo-trombone work from 2019, Lawrence—In Memory of Lawrence Leathers, by Kevin Cerovich (born 1985). Its three movements last about as long as Higdon’s single one, but they are less assured and involving – as if they have personal meaning for the composer that is never fully communicated to listeners who did not know the person being memorialized. There follow three works for three trombones, in which Davis is joined by Devin Bennett and Daniel Marion. Felicity, from Two Pieces for Three Trombones dates to 1965. Composed by Raymond Premru (1934-1998), it is a brief, tonal work in which the three instruments are treated as equals, producing a pleasant chorale-like effect. Ba-Dee-Doo-Dup (1977) by Brian E. Lynn (born 1954) is a very light, mostly upbeat four-movement work with strong jazz/pop inflections that sound surprisingly good in trombone-trio form. The one-minute second movement, Waltz, is genuinely humorous without sounding parodistic, while the final two-minute March is brightly effective and only slightly reminiscent of Sousa. After this comes a very different sort of work, Ancient Twinkle Appearing (1997) by Norman Bolter (born 1955). This is mostly quiet and rather hesitant music with some unexpected “waa-waa” effects. The final piece on the CD refocuses attention entirely on Davis, being another work for trombone and piano. Written by Paul Rudy (born 1962) and dating to 2018, it is called Awaken! It is the longest work on the disc, at 13 minutes being longer even than those containing three or four movements; and it does not really sustain very well. It does give Davis plenty of chances to emote through the trombone, and certainly it has enough virtuosic elements to make it a piece of interest to other trombone players. But it does not reach out very effectively to a more-general audience. The CD as a whole comes across as a fine showcase for Davis, but a disc without much staying power on the basis of the music rather than the performances. Lynn’s Ba-Dee-Doo-Dup is more enjoyable than the other works and shows more cleverness in composition and more distinctiveness in style. But the CD is ultimately more about the performers – specifically Davis as the primary trombonist – than it is about what is performed.

December 24, 2020


Haydn: Symphony No. 100; Missa in angustiis, “Nelson Mass.” Mary Bevan, soprano; Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano; Jeremy Budd, tenor; Sumner Thompson, baritone; Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.

Haydn: Symphony No. 85; Mozart: Mass in C, K317, “Coronation”; Exsultate, Jubilate. Teresa Wakim, soprano; Paula Murrihy, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Cooley, tenor; Sumner Thompson, baritone; Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.

Eric Coates: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—London Bridge; The Selfish Giant; Wood Nymphs; The Enchanted Garden; For Your Delight; Summer Days; Lazy Night; Calling All Workers. BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Wilson. Chandos. $18.99.

Beethoven: String Quartets, Volume 1—Op. 18, Nos. 1-6. Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Parajo-van de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello). Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).

     There are obvious and much-less-obvious ways to arrange multi-disc recordings of closely related pieces of music, and the presentation decisions can have a significant impact on the effects of the interpretations. The Handel and Haydn Society has evolved a very interesting way of offering some of Haydn’s symphonies, which represented “new” music when the group was formed and named in 1815 (Handel was the “old” music at the time). Symphony No. 100, the “Military,” is one of Haydn’s final dozen symphonies and is usually presented in that context, with a couple of other “London” symphonies on the same disc or as part of a multi-CD set including all 12. Not so for Harry Christophers’ ensemble. Christophers uses a different context for Symphony No. 100 on a new recording from CORO, pairing the 1794 symphony with the 1798 “Nelson Mass” – and in so doing providing considerable insight into Haydn’s late style, from the years after he stopped writing symphonies altogether. The symphony itself is delivered with wonderful verve and a firm understanding of period style (and, as always with these performers, on period instruments). And the inclusion of “Turkish” percussion, including a jangling “Turkish crescent,” is handled exceptionally well. Modern listeners inevitably hear the percussion elements in the second and fourth movements of this symphony as bright, upbeat and sonically interesting, but they were much less so – and much more threatening – for Haydn’s original audiences, which had recently experienced battles with Turkish forces. The forcefulness of Christophers’ handling of the percussion is quite apt, and contrasts well with the more-typical Haydnesque elements in the rest of the symphony. The contrast with the “Nelson Mass” is very effective, too. This is, emotionally, a somewhat lighter Mass than might be expected from the composer who had just produced The Creation. The brightness of the end of the Agnus Dei is particularly surprising. But Haydn shows himself throughout to be a master of the forms commonly used in Mass settings, the fugue at the end of the Gloria being especially notable. The pairing of symphony and Mass setting is out of the ordinary but is, for that very reason, notable in itself – and the excellence of the performances, which flow from a very clear understanding of the music of Haydn and his time, more than justifies the unusual nature of the mixture of material.

     Christophers and his ensemble have in fact made it something of a signature to present secular, symphonic music of the Classical era along with sacred material. For example, instead of releasing what would have been a more-typical multi-disc set of Haydn’s “Paris” symphonies (Nos. 82-87), Christophers presents the six symphonies one at a time, pairing each of them with material (symphonic or not) that both complements and highlights each “Paris” work and in so doing sheds new light both on the Haydn symphonies and on the pieces offered with them. Thus, Symphony No. 85 (“La Reine”) gets a beautifully balanced and emotionally satisfying performance from the Handel and Haydn Society – light, fleet and well-paced throughout. But instead of being presented with another “Paris” symphony or two, No. 85 – which dates to 1785-86 – is offered with Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass of 1779 and, equally intriguingly, with the younger composer’s 1773 motet, Exsultate, Jubilate. The highly interesting result is that it is impossible to say whether this CORO disc is a Haydn issue containing sacred music by Mozart or a Mozart issue containing a symphony by Haydn. The Haydn is certainly taken out of its usual context here – but, equally certainly, it does not suffer as a result. Placed first on the disc, it serves as a curtain-raiser for the Mozart works even though it is quite clearly self-contained and presented entirely on its own merits. The symphony is followed by the motet – written when Mozart was 16 – and the result is exhilarating as well as surprising: Teresa Wakim sings with both lightness and fervor, presenting the material with just the sort of upbeat enthusiasm that would have been expected in a work of this type in Mozart’s time. And then she and the other soloists in the “Coronation” Mass do an especially fine job with the operatic elements introduced into the sacred work, the Agnus Dei being especially notable in this regard. Young Mozart was clearly adept with the typical sacred-music forms of his time, but his attention seems more focused in this Mass on some of the instrumental material (especially for the strings) than on strictly presenting vocal elements in expected formats. Christophers’ “pairing” approach to Haydn’s symphonies not only shines new light on the symphonies themselves but also invites listeners to compare the non-symphonic material on the discs: the Mass settings by Haydn and Mozart are quite different, each effective in its own way, and each stamped with its composer’s personal ideas and techniques despite the use of the identical text for both. This is a fascinating way to present music that tends to be offered, more traditionally, in more-obvious combinations – sacred works with other sacred works, symphonies from a grouping with others from the same group, and so on.

     Much more common than the Christophers approach, but also making interesting juxtapositions possible, is the release of musical collections simply labeled as volumes of a series. This makes it possible to include pretty much anything that fits the series in pretty much any sequence – not always for reasons that are clear to listeners, although they may be well-considered in devising the set of “volumes.” The second Chandos release of orchestral music by Eric Coates (1886-1957), as performed by the BBC Philharmonic under John Wilson, is a good case in point. There is no clear reason for the specific order in which the material on this disc appears. Certainly chronology is not a factor: London Bridge dates to 1934, The Selfish Giant to 1925, Wood Nymphs to 1917, The Enchanted Garden to 1938, For Your Delight to 1937, Summer Days to 1919, Lazy Night to 1931, and Calling All Workers to 1940. Interestingly, the enclosed booklet does discuss the works chronologically, making it even harder to figure out why this particular arrangement of pieces was chosen. The lengths of the works do not seem to be the reason, nor is there any particular attempt to, say, follow more-serious material with the less-serious; indeed, there is nothing particularly somber in any of this Coates music, even though some of it – notably the wartime Calling All Workers march – springs from serious concerns. There are times when a solo-instrument or chamber-music disc appears simply to represent a personalized recital by the performer or performers, but there is no indication that this is the case here. So what listeners get is nothing more (and nothing less!) that a series of mostly bright, mostly bouncy, tuneful and thoroughly well-crafted pieces of the type usually described as “light classics,” all played with great style by the orchestra and conducted by Wilson with unflagging enthusiasm. Come to think of it, that results in a very worthwhile listening experience indeed – even if the motivation for presenting it in exactly this way remains obscure.

     Yet for many multi-release CD sequences, the arrangement of material is obvious, and the traditional form of presentation is quite clearly the best available. That is so when it comes to Beethoven’s string quartets, which fall so neatly into early, middle and late groupings that any ensemble planning to offer the full set will inevitably present the early material, then the “middle” quartets, and finally the late works. That is certainly the direction in which a new two-CD Cedille release featuring the Dover Quartet is going. This is the first of a planned three-volume presentation – and the only volume of the cycle released during the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth (the performances themselves date to 2018 and 2019). Sometimes traditional sequences really are the best way to go: this is a first-rate offering of the six quartets from Op. 18 and is worthy of comparison with the best versions available from other fine ensembles – and it is hard to imagine a better sequence than the one so neatly flowing from just following these quartets’ designations as Op. 18, Nos. 1-6 (although, speaking of sequencing, the numbering does not reflect the order of composition: No. 3 is the earliest and No. 5 was written before No. 4). The Dover Quartet’s handling of these pieces places the works firmly in the line of Mozart’s quartets, to which they are in many ways quite closely tied. The melodic lines are kept very clear in these performances, and the quartets’ ensemble sections are played with precision and the care that comes with careful rehearsal – yet the quartets do not sound rehearsed, or at least not over-rehearsed, coming across with a sense of spontaneity and (where appropriate) joie de vivre that is quite winning. These quartets contain barely any hints of where Beethoven would go in the later ones, and to the Dover Quartet’s credit, the players do not look overly hard for any forward-looking material or overemphasize any that they find. These are, foundationally, very Mozartean (sometimes Haydnesque) performances of the early Beethoven quartets – and that it all to the good, since this approach does not weigh the music down with a level of portentousness that it simply does not have. Even No. 4, the only minor-key work in the set, plumbs no significant emotional depths, its home key of C minor scarcely suggesting the intensity that Beethoven would bring to that key in later works; and No. 2, which is filled with polite conversation among the instruments, especially benefits from the Dover Quartet’s approach. Throughout the six-quartet set, the performers communicate musically in seemingly effortless style, allowing the music – much of it far more plainspoken than later Beethoven would be – to emerge in its own time (the tempos are uniformly well-chosen) and to build communicative edifices that, if not imposing, are very pleasantly shaped and worth returning to again and again. Indeed, a salient characteristic of these performances is that they are pleasantly engaging when first heard, yet full enough of depth and style to be worthy of repeated listenings. Beethoven’s middle and late quartets require a presentation style that is very different from that of these early ones, but that is tied to and quite obviously builds from what the Op. 18 quartets possess. It will be very interesting indeed to hear how this conventionally sequenced quartet series progresses – in particular, whether the Dover Quartet will successfully highlight what is new and different in Beethoven’s later quartets while still paying attention to the ways in which they recall the approaches and influences of these first six.


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.