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Scaling Bach’s Mountains With Stamina and Skill

10.25.11
Jennifer Koh
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

By refusing to specialize in a particular corner of the violin repertory, and leaping freely among several, Jennifer Koh has built a following that draws on, and ideally brings together, several of the music world’s style-conscious enclaves. Some listeners know her for the hard-edged contemporary scores she has recorded and to which she has devoted full recitals. Others associate her with the six free lunchtime recitals of Bach’s Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas (BWV 1001-6) she gave at Columbia University two seasons ago. She is also touring with a Bach and Beyond series in which she juxtaposes the solo Bach works with 20th- and 21st-century pieces, some written for the occasion. 

But Ms. Koh focused fully on Bach on Sunday afternoon, when she played all six unaccompanied works in a single marathon concert presented by the Miller Theater at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The hall, used regularly as a classical music recording space, rarely hosts concerts, and that’s a pity: It is comfortable and fairly intimate (730 seats), and its acoustics have a lovely natural bloom that Ms. Koh used to her advantage.

Ms. Koh made subtle but important distinctions between the sonatas — which are cast in the formal church style, and which she played as devoutly focused meditations, with rigorous fast movements interspersed — and the partitas, collections of dances, which are performed more spiritedly.

That said, she also accounted for the fact that those distinctions are not airtight. The Chaconne that closes the Partita No. 2, a variation set built on a dance pattern, is as sublime as any of the sonata movements, although the huge Fugue in the Sonata No. 3 is surely a formidable challenger.

Ms. Koh played both with the intensity they demand, in beautifully shaped, mesmerizing readings. At the other end of the sobriety spectrum, the incendiary Allegro assai that closes the Third Sonata has much in common with the Gigue that closes the Third Partita, and Ms. Koh made the link between them clear.

The recital, which put three works on either side of a single intermission, was a feat of physical and imaginative stamina, and Ms. Koh was intent on fostering concentration. She waited calmly for rustling and coughing to cease before starting each work. And the program book, which the Miller Theater usually fills with copious notes, listed the works but not the movements, and offered no information about the music, presumably to remove that distraction from listeners’ laps.