Koh Caps Her Bach Project With Links To Berio, Harbison

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Jennifer Koh plays music by Bach and more recent composers on her new Cedille CD.

Jennifer Koh: Bach & Beyond Part 3. Cedille CDR90000-199 (2 CDs). Total time: 86:23.

DIGITAL REVIEW – As the final installment of Jennifer Koh’s Bach & Beyond project for solo violin was released in November, the entire three-part series became a metaphor for sheltering in place.

Koh embarked on the project long before COVID-19 devastated concert life. Starting in 2011, the recordings on the Chicago-based Cedille label yielded J.S. Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas, in addition to carefully chosen music from “beyond” by Eugène Ysaÿe, Bela Bartók, Kaija Saariaho, Luciano Berio, and John Harbison.

A strong proponent of new music, Koh has succeeded in revealing Bach’s connection to each of these composers. From the start, Bach’s intense longing, soaring lyricism, and mind-boggling counterpoint come brilliantly to life. Music from the 19th to 21st centuries takes listeners to places the Baroque master could never have imagined.

In her opening notes to Part 1 of the set, Koh remarked, “I have always believed that music is a direct conversation and reflection of the world we live in.” Her comment has taken on even more profound meaning in Part 3, released in the heart of the pandemic. The somber opening of Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003, marked Grave, at once provides respite and reflection. The violinist’s immaculate technique is most apparent in the ensuing Fuga, a maze of imitative passages, flourishes, and double-to-quadruple stops made coherent in this visceral, at times gritty, reading.

A relaxing sigh in the Andante sostenuto leads to the Allegro finale, which is marked by Koh’s close attention to Bach’s complex, multi-voiced textures. Here, as in the Fuga, Koh exploits acoustic echo to bring out the melodic underpinnings of the arpeggios and counterpoint.

Luciano Berio

Completed in 1976, Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII is part of the composer’s series of 14 Sequenzas, each for a solo instrument. The segue on this CD from Bach to Berio can be jarring. Squeamish listeners might be advised to sit in silence for awhile before embarking on the work’s brash dissonances and nerve-rattling repetition. But the Bach connection is palpable, the A minor tonality at the end of the sonata bleeding into Berio’s A tonal center. Although most of the score hovers around that pitch, wide leaps, motivic playfulness, and Paganini-esque flights of fancy facilitate a wild ride. Aggressive accents, the occasional ghostly repose, and always impressive technique drive Koh’s performance.

John Harbison’s For Violin Alone, composed for Koh and presented here in its premiere recording, is more directly related to Bach’s partitas, which she recorded in Parts 1 and 2 of this series. The work eerily foreshadows the loneliness of waiting out COVID-19, at the same time channeling the Baroque suite. Graceful and charming, it is less a technical challenge for Koh than a display of her considerable lyrical gifts.

The Ground that opens the work is filled with broad leaps and contains a hint of American fiddling. The Air that follows brings to mind the feeling of isolation that prevails in Khachaturian’s Adagio from Gayane Ballet Suite. It is less a technical challenge than an expression of melancholy.

John Harbison

An Epilogue ends the work, its quiet reflection and slowly unfolding chromatic lines the perfect complement to the Adagio opening of Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005, which follows. But this masterful bit of programming is quickly replaced in the conscience by Koh’s clarity and conveyance of Bach’s counterpoint in the Fuga. After a heartfelt Largo, the CD closes with another example of Koh’s incisive execution of Bach’s layered textures in the Allegro assai.

The recordings were produced in 2017 and 2019 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York (Bach Sonata No. 2, Berio) and at the SUNY Purchase Concert Hall (Harbison, Bach Sonata No. 3). They were given a fine acoustic touch with a sensitive amount of hall echo by Judith Sherman, Jeanne Velonis, and Bill Maylone.

Michael Huebner is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Ala. He is a former classical music critic and fine arts reporter for the Birmingham News and AL.com. He also has written for the Kansas City Star and Austin American-Statesman.