Jennifer Koh‘s second “Bach and Beyond” concert of solo violin music this season at the Mansion at Strathmore on Thursday night featured performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata no. 1 in G minor and Partita no. 1 that beat out any other performances of those works I’ve heard live. From the opening Adagio of the sonata, Koh gave her lines breath and gravity, shaping the melody with aching intensity yet never losing touch with the rhythm. The next movement, a fast fugue, featured some insanely treacherous multiple stops that Koh made into part of the overall thrust of the music. Her low notes, resonant and woody, anchored the counterpoint and seemed to expand to fill the intimate Mansion at Strathmore; the fugal theme first felt like a whisper and then a scream as the emotional intensity built to a shattering climax. A sweet slow Siciliana got ambushed by a Presto finale that came so fast you could barely hold onto the melody, yet sounded perfectly controlled; the effect was like taking a corner at high speed in a race car, except for several minutes consecutively.
Koh’s Partita no. 1 might have been even better. The opening Allemanda came flowing from her bow in a gentle stream, and she seemed to let the last note hang in the air for just a second and then catch and transform it to start the subsequent Double variation, which sounded just as facile with twice the notes. The Double of the Corrente again had that race-car feeling of perfectly controlled speed, and the Sarabande sounded perfectly balanced, never too slow yet always intense. The big thwacking chords of the “Tempo di Borea” finale here are my favorite part of this partita, and Koh gave them a satisfying bite while maintaining the dance rhythm, which is hard to do. With Koh’s overall feeling for rhythm unifying the disparate dances, the partita became greater than the sum of its parts, and those parts were pretty fine themselves.
But Koh enriches the “Bach and Beyond” concerts by going, well, beyond, to more recent solo works. Koh even commissioned Phil Kline’s partita, “Dead Reckoning,” which separated the two Bach words on the first half of Thursday’s program. “Dead Reckoning”’s position helped to cleanse the palate and prevent Bach from sounding too familiar; Kline’s work echoed Bach in certain ways, like the motoric rhythms in some of the faster sections, and differed entirely in others, like how the harmonies stayed relatively static or moved by half-steps rather than round and round the circle of fifths. Koh’s conviction and sense of narrative gave shape to what could well sound like an episodic work, with its various tentative stabs, lyrical swerves, and essays at speed eventually collapsing and yielding to an exhausted kind of grace at the end.
In her previous B&B concert at Strathmore, the non-Bachiana was all contemporary, but she had a ringer in store for the second half: Béla Bartók, with his Sonata for solo violin, written for Yehudi Menhuin almost 70 years ago. For me, this work is to Bach’s solo sonatas as Dmitri Shostakovich’s Op. 78 preludes and fugues for piano are to Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier: a modern master taking a perfected form and daring to make it his own.
Bartók marked the first movement “Tempo di ciaccona,” leading me to wonder: What is the tempo of a chaconne, anyway? It begins with commanding rhetoric that soon finds itself refracted in folk-inflected harmonies. The subject of the ensuring fugue is more a loud rhythmic pattern that beats up the tentative attempts at counterpoint. Things get a bit more serious in the Melodia third movement, which provides the promised melody in a kaleidoscopic array of registers and tone qualities: high harmonics, whispered muted tones, full-on fortes. Koh made it spellbinding after delivering the rough jokes of the fugue. Though Bartók’s Presto finale was not quite as blistering as the same-tempo finale of the Bach sonata and featured frequent switches to place the mute on and off the bridge, Koh dazzled here anyway. (The Mansion’s music room is small enough that you could actually hear the mute being placed as Koh’s left hand pizzicatoed some cover material.)
Deliberately constructing a program to place newer material in the context of older classics so that each is further illuminated is challenging enough that not a lot of people do it and rewarding enough that I wish everyone would do it. Here’s to Koh for both making the attempt and succeeding in a spectacular way.
MARGINALIA, INCLUDING RANKING THE ALL-TIME CLASSICS
Some folks applauded a bit after the Presto Double in the partita. They were right to do so! It’s a spontaneous expression of admiration at that point. It wasn’t a lot of clapping, just you had to do something to get the energy out.
This concert was great in part because it had two of my favorite of the six unaccompanied solo violin sonatas and partitas. The previous concert only had one. Here is the ranked list:
- Partita no. 3. This has the best dance feel of all of them, and I cannot get over the middle two movement, the Gavotte en Rondeau and the Menuets. The Menuets sound like a beam of sunlight coming through a cloud to me, every time I hear them.
- Sonata no. 1. The fugue! It’s the best one.
- Partita no. 1. The way Bach makes everything have twice as many notes is so slick. It’s like how you go to Five Guys and they give you two patties as the default option. Bach gives it to you and then he gives it to you double.
- Partita no. 2. I realize this has the most famous single movement in the six works in question, but the Chaconne always works better extracted from the partita for me. The other partitas are better as balanced suites of works; this one is all back-heavy. The first few movements feel like something you’re rushing through to get to Big Bad Quarter-Hour Chaconne. Maybe this is just me. Probably.
- Sonata no. 3. Mostly for the first movement.
- Sonata no. 2. Of these six universally acclaimed masterworks, this is my least favorite. I realize that it is better than almost everything anyone else ever composed. I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em.