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With noble command, violinist Midori scales Bach's heavenly heights
It seems like only yesterday that the single-named violin virtuoso from Japan named Midori made her Chicago debut at Ravinia. In fact, that was 25 years ago, when she was all of 15. "A remarkable discovery" I called her back then, and remarkable she remains. The intervening years have hardly touched her physically and, if anything, have only deepened the artistry that went along with her astonishing technical gift.
On Tuesday night, she returned to Ravinia's Martin Theatre to present the first of two recitals devoted to the complete J.S. Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin. No more daunting technical and musical challenge exists in the entire fiddle repertory, and Midori proved herself to be more than equal to the challenge. She is due to conclude her Bach marathon on Thursday evening. No one who appreciates violin playing at the highest level should miss this event.
Not published, and probably never performed publicly, during Bach's lifetime, the three solo sonatas and three partitas that make up the set adhere to Baroque norms formally but far exceed any previous attempts in the genre in terms of complexity, brilliance of invention and sheer technical difficulty.
Every major solo violinist eventually tests his or her chops against these formidable masterpieces, and Midori is the latest to enter the arena. She devoted the first half of her first program to two sonatas – No. 1 in G minor and No. 3 in C major. She reserved the second half for the Partita No. 2 in D minor, with its monumental Chaconne. She played all three suites from memory, no small feat in itself on a hot, muggy night, with coughers apt to ruffle her concentration.
None of them did. Midori's technical command and musicality, allied to the silken beauty of the sound she drew from her violin (the burgundy-toned 1734 "ex-Huberman" Guarnerius del Gesu), remained impeccable throughout. Her intonation was similarly flawless. Her bow strokes combined leonine strength and feline grace. Her phrasing invested the first four movements of the partita with springy inflections that honored their origins in Baroque dance forms.
The slow movements she treated as rapt meditations, their lines unfolding with the utmost flexibility, calm and quiet. This freed the music from any trace of mechanical rigidity. The awkward string crossings of the Adagio movement of the third sonata were finessed beautifully. In such movements as the Fugue of the C major sonata (after the Chaconne, the longest single movement in the suites) she emphasized the rich sonority of Bach's intricate polyphonic writing, with its chains of double stops, rapid string crossings and all the rest.
She saved the best for last. The mighty Chaconne is a famed litmus test of every interpreter's mettle. A series of 64 variations on a stately triple-meter dance theme, this 15-minute workout represents the beating heart of the cycle, the moment when intellectual prowess and spiritual profundity coincide most fully. Midori played it with astonishing poise and even nobility, swaying this way and that as she dug ever deeper into the music's inner and outer substance.
What was true of her playing in the rest of the program also was true here: She heightened the expressive contrasts between sections of the Chaconne with subtle shifts of dynamics and fine degrees of tonal weight. The consummate mastery of her performance fairly took one's breath away. By this end point in the program even the coughers fell silent. There was a long standing ovation but no encores were offered. Nor were any needed. Once an artist scales the Everest that is Bach's music, there's nothing left to climb.
The second and final program of Midori's survey of the complete Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin will take place at 8 p.m. Thursday. Repertory will consist of Partitas Nos. 1 and 3, and Sonata No. 2; $75, $10 lawn; Martin Theatre, Ravinia, Green Bay Road and Lake-Cook Road, Highland Park; 312-266-5100, ravinia.org.