Avery Fisher Hall
Igor Stravinsky: Duo concertant
Johann Sebastian Bach: Partita # 2
Serge Prokofieff: Sonata # 1
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Two Pieces, Op. 6
Kyung-Wha Chung (violin)
Itamar Golan (piano)
Given the confines of her protracted concert schedule, I have had the opportunity to hear Kyung-Wha Chung quite a bit in recent years and have come to the conclusion over time that she is the most deeply satisfying violinist performing today. Two of the qualities which make her stand out above the very talented crowd were on exhibit this afternoon at Lincoln Center. First, she possesses the mind and heart of a composer and has the musical intelligence to convey the structure of a work for all to appreciate. Second, she has an amazingly protean ability to play in very differing styles on the same program.
Something very special was going on during her solo performance of the Bach. What started out as an extremely competent reading began to develop in a similar manner as a musical composition, the performance growing in intensity and branching out into satellite worlds of musical meaning. Somewhere in the midpoint I realized that this was a decidedly spiritual experience and that we were all witnessing an evolutionary interpretation. Ms. Chung’s Bach is totally full-bodied, the sort of performance that would have Roger Norrington running for the exits. By employing a healthy vibrato and an extremely strong bowing technique, she makes that little fiddle sound like a great cathedral organ, or, perhaps even more a propos, an entire Stokowskian orchestra. This is Bach the way most modern audiences love it. Ms. Chung’s concentration was electrifying, her body as straight as a caryatid, her face engulfed in a higher plane of ethereal communication. Works often develop this way, but it is rare for a performance to have such a definite shape.
The remainder of the program was devoted to an exploration of differing techniques in Russian music. Igor Stravinsky had a theory that the sonorities of the violin and the piano did not compliment one another, and in this piece he provides some very convincing evidence. Itamar Golan is much more than an accompanist to Ms. Chung; he is really an equal musical partner. The battle raged between the two and enlivened what really is a not very attractive work (Stravinsky’s bacon was saved during the encores with a thrilling section from Dushkin’s arrangement of Petrushka) and it was debatable as to which combatant was the stronger. Ms. Chung played the Prokofieff masterfully, her spidery fingering fittingly mysterious. She has the instincts of a tightrope walker, throwing herself into the music to a physical level which makes one think that she must trip and fall and yet always playing each note cleanly, her on the edge style only increasing the overall power of the experience.
Kyung-Wha doesn’t so much imitate other great violinists of the past as absorbs their sound within her own. The two Rachmaninoff pieces were evocative of his longtime sonata partner Kreisler, the unashamed heavy vibrato and even occasional portamento a testament to Ms. Chung’s daring individuality in the face of modern political correctness. Her first encore, the charming Bon Soir of Debussy, put me in mind of Heifetz, this diaphanous style achieved by keeping the vibration out of the left hand, the sound correspondingly thin and waiflike. As usual, this was a fabulous recital. My only regret was that she played no Bartok. For me, Ms. Chung is the greatest living advocate for this unique composer, her studies with his dear friend Joseph Szigeti leaving her with a passionate regard for this particular music. Today is Bartok’s birthday and one of her patented violent traversals would have been the piece de resistance.
One more observation about Kyung-Wha Chung. She is an acknowledged role model in the Korean community and her concerts are always filled with attentive, well-dressed and behaved children. Herself the product of a musical family, she gives a little something back in each of her highly dignified appearances. At the end of the day, teaching the next generation to cherish the classics is music’s summum bonum and Ms. Chung is a true heroine in the struggle against rampant mediocrity.
Frederick L. Kirshnit