Jennifer Koh’s Bach, Volume 3

Review by: David Vernier

kohbach part 3

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Jennifer Koh returns, with the third and final installment in her Bach & Beyond series. Just to recap, quoting from my earlier review of Part 2: “Part 1 [read review here] is a single disc that features two Bach partitas along with works by Saariaho, Ysaÿe, and Missy Mazzoli, all of it demanding of ear and mind, yet readily accessible and rewarding even to listeners unaccustomed to solo violin repertoire. Part 2 [review here] is a two-disc set containing just four substantial works–requiring not only a greater investment of time, but inviting a particular curiosity about and receptivity to more adventurous explorations of solo-string technique and expression. In other words, aside from the Bach, this program is not for those looking for 90 minutes of familiar, ‘easy’ listening.”

And now, with Part 3, we have another two-disc program, framed by two Bach sonatas–No. 2 in A minor BWV 1003, and No. 3 in C major BWV 1005–and filled out by Luciano Berio’s 15-minute-plus Sequenza VIII and John Harbison’s For Violin Alone, composed in 2019 for Koh and here receiving its world-premiere recording. Koh’s Bach, as noted in my two previous reviews, is polished, passionate, and presented with requisite attention to notational detail, but also with a lived-in, well-thought-out sense of phrasing and melodic flow that arises from the score, from an understanding of the all-important harmonic underpinning–an approach practical and just a bit personal, but never with a hint of posturing.

For this series we especially appreciate how carefully and purposefully Koh has chosen her program partners. We’re not expecting direct stylistic similarity, of course–Bach joining hands with Berio and Harbison is not the point. Rather, what Koh is interested in is some manner of influence or inspiration, arising either in some indirect, complementary way from Bach (Harbison), or by means of a more symbolic, technically oriented tribute to the master’s revolutionary, matchless conceptions (Berio).

Berio’s focus is not Bach per se, but rather takes off, sets its trajectory, and develops its very specific “violinistic” gestures and effects from the well-laid platform of virtuoso solo-violin technique established by the German genius in his ground-breaking sonatas and partitas. There’s no direct reference to Bach, yet the liner notes reference Berio’s comments that this work “becomes inevitably a tribute to that musical apex that is the Ciaccona from J.S. Bach’s Partita in D minor where…past, present, and future violin techniques coexist.” Not surprisingly, this is not a sit-back-and-relax experience; it’s a sit forward and hear the not always “pretty” expressions and explorations of a modern composer putting an instrument through its paces.

Harbison’s For Violin Alone hews closer to solo-violin Bach, its six movements plus epilogue more suite than sonata, its structural elements and integral melodic and harmonic components providing the fertile material for often wide-ranging, albeit tonal, thematic exploration, single lines punctuated by pertinent double-stops that anchor the harmony. Koh is especially effective in the way she articulates these double-stop passages, notably one extended sequence at the end of  “Ground”, and throughout Duet and Epilogue.

Ultimately, for me the takeaway from these programs is the ingenuity, the majesty, the audacity of Bach’s imagination and the un-improvable manner in which he realized it. Whatever comes after, by however accomplished a composer, owes a huge debt to Bach’s inimitable and totally original conceptualization and realization of the instrument’s technical and expressive capabilities. Throughout these first-rate performances, Koh takes her time, to the benefit of the music–no rushing, no gratuitous theatrics–and yet is fully capable of exploding into an energetic fury of bow and fingers that leaves you impressed with both the violin and Koh’s command of its unique voice and power.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Bach & Beyond Part 3
  • Jennifer Koh (violin)

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