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Scaling Everest and Conquering More Peaks

03.04.13
Jennifer Koh
The New York Times

By Steve Smith

Jennifer Koh in Bach and Beyond, at 92nd Street Y

The six unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas for violin that Bach composed during the first two decades of the 18th century have long represented an Everest that every serious violinist feels compelled to climb. The challenges are considerable, not least because Bach provides few explicit interpretive directions. And for some players, Bach’s monumental set is less a peak to be surmounted than a journey that warrants return excursions and encourages consideration of manifold paths.

Jennifer Koh, a superbly gifted violinist, has proved to be a steadfast and sure surveyor of this terrain. In New York, under the auspices of the Miller Theater, she has played Bach incrementally during lunchtime concerts at Columbia University, and in a superhuman marathon at the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

But Ms. Koh’s interest in the Sonatas and Partitas extends beyond her own engagement with the works. With Bach and Beyond, a concert series she has presented at the 92nd Street Y and on tour, she assesses Bach’s impact on other artists, placing his music alongside unaccompanied violin works by composers who followed in his wake and alongside newly commissioned pieces.

On Saturday night at the Y, playing for a sizable, rapt audience, Ms. Koh offered her latest Bach and Beyond program, which opened with Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor (BWV 1001). She asserted her authority instantly, playing with flawless technique and an unerring sense of contrast and continuity. Each voice in the Fugue had its own character; the Siciliana sang out with chaste sweetness.

A commissioned piece by Phil Kline, initially designated simply as Partita, here gained a new title, “Dead Reckoning.” Inspired by the humid torpor and anxious birdsong that preceded Hurricane Irene at Mr. Kline’s home in Spencertown, N.Y., in 2011, the piece reflects facets of Bach’s structural matrix and instrumental language. But the fleeting disharmonies and Minimalist rhythmic cells are Mr. Kline’s own, and a finale that seems to evoke funeral bagpipes was genuinely moving.

In the limber, poetic account of Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B minor (BWV 1002) that followed, Ms. Koh played the Corrente and its Double with a fiery intensity that prompted explosive applause midway through the work. You might have wondered how she would muster sufficient energy for the concert’s second half, devoted to Bartok’s craggy, monumental Sonata. Rally she did, offering a penetrating rendition that resonated with what felt like biographical portent: a fist shaken defiantly by an isolated, impoverished composer in the face of indifferent fate and final illness.

Repeatedly recalled for ovations, Ms. Koh offered a single encore, the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor (BWV 1004). She dedicated the offering to her first violin teacher, Jo Davis, who had flown in from Phoenix for the recital.