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Bach and Beyond

09.23.11
Jennifer Koh
bachtrack

By Alan Coady

 

You might think that a programme containing Bach and 20th/21st century composers would suggest an evening of unconnected extremes. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Jennifer Koh's Bach and Beyond recital, given in Lennoxlove House, Haddington as part of the Lammermuir Festival. Positioned in front of the yawning fireplace in the Great Hall of this 700-year old stately home, she opened with Bach's Partita in E major, BWV 1006. This was the beginning of her programme's stated return journey from light to darkness. The life-affirming momentum of the Prelude, in this bright key was itself a prelude to the energetic, virtuosic and expressive playing which was to characterise the evening.

Stemming the raising of appreciative audience hands at the end of the Partita, Koh leapt into Sonata for solo violin in A minor, Op 27 no. 2 by Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931). To those not clutching a programme, this could have sounded like a reprise of the opening Prelude. This impression would soon have disintegrated as the piece quickly swerved into music befitting the movement's titular obsession. This was impassioned and exciting playing. Quoting directly from the Partita - and tangentially from Bach's Chaconne which was to finish the evening's return to light – this piece furnished an excellent musical wormhole by which to traverse two centuries. However, its truly dark content lay in a much older reference – the Dies Irae from the requiem mass – buried in the frenzied opening movement, quoted directly at the close of the second movement, Malinconia and more wrathfully in the closing movement, Les Furies. A stranger to Ysaÿe's music, I was quickly converted by this gripping performance.

The remainder of the first half was devoted to music by living composers, two of whose pieces were in memory of composers no longer with us. Kaija Saariaho's Nocturne: In Memory of W. Lutoslawski, contrasted edgy, wide-ranging melodies with more delicate, evocative sonorities – particularly some inventive play with overtones produced by bowing very near the bridge. These ghostly sounds were abetted in their journey by the wooden floor and stone walls of the Great Hall. Elliott Carter's Fantasy – Remembering Roger, in memory of Roger Sessions, was an altogether more outspoken affair – very powerfully rendered by Koh. Its energy resonated with the idea of Carter still composing at 102 years old!

The closing piece of the half, which also featured material based on Bach's Chaconne, expressed loss of a different kind - specifically the loss of the ability to laugh. This central dramatic idea in Esa Pekka Salonen's Lachen Verlernt is borrowed from Pierrot Lunaire and, as Koh explained “is a metaphor about the human struggle to reconnect with emotions that we believe we have lost.” It was very clear to all present that Jennifer Koh is very much in touch with the world of emotions. This was a breathtaking performance – darkly reflective then explosively virtuosic. Earlier in her excellent programme note, she mentions “having grown up in a time when people declared classical music to be a dead art.” It was never more alive than during this piece and my feeling was that, were such a performance available to school assemblies throughout the country, this premature obituary could be quickly revised.

To resume the journey to the light, following a conversational interval, some reminder of tenebrous territory may be necessary. The dark angularity of Bach's Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 readily summoned the mood, which was further intensified in the central Sarabanda. Even the Giga suggested determination rather than joy. Rays of light do not really begin to break through until half-way through the titanic, closing Chaconne: the piece eases into the major; the agitated mood of earlier moments subsides; a sense of calm pervades. Enlightenment, however, is hard work and this feeling proves to have been an intimation rather than the easy gift of a happy ending. Certainly we have been led towards some kind of light, which is as much as can be done for us. This piece ends on a single note – neither major nor minor – it's up to us. I felt, as I'm sure did many others, that this was not simply a concert but a journey. Throughout the evening, our guide - a fierce musical intelligence - engaged with substantial works in a brilliantly devised programme, exhibiting some of the best solo playing I can recall.