Chung’s engaging artistry shows through in uneven Carnegie return

Fri May 19, 2017 at 3:20 pm
Kyung Wha Chaung performed Bach;s complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin Thursday night at Carnegie Hall.

Kyung Wha Chung performed Bach’s complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin Thursday night at Carnegie Hall.

The “feat of strength,” it seems, holds an irresistible allure even for artists. Just weeks ago, Alisa Weilerstein set out to prove her mettle by performing the complete Bach Cello Suites at the 92nd Street Y. And on Thursday night Kyung Wha Chung, returning to the concert stage after an injury-induced absence, attempted all six of the composer’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin at Carnegie Hall.

Given her circumstances, the temptation to make a splash by scaling the six peaks of the solo violin rep in one sitting must be strong, indeed—but such an undertaking would be difficult for any violinist. The mere thought of trying to tackle the treacherous C-major Fugue after two hours of solo playing (assuming the six are all played in order of composition) is enough to induce hand cramps. For a 69-year-old violinist coming off a hand injury, the challenge becomes only greater.

The result was a mix, in the end. Much of Chung’s playing on Thursday night seemed like an enormous struggle—wayward intonation, blurry fingerwork, and pressed sound were only the beginning. Nearly all of the moto perpetuo movements felt as though she was barely hanging on, and a few, most notably the Double of the B-minor Partita’s Corrente, became a total mess. Chung at least seemed aware that her technique was lacking, shaking her head or smiling wryly when she hit a rough patch.

And yet in the same recital, which showed technical insecurities throughout its three hours (including two intermissions), there was a great deal of beautifully expressive, musically sensitive playing. Chung’s approach was strikingly idiosyncratic, too—a certain economy of vibrato aside, she did not impose on herself any of the stylistic constraints that have been commonly accepted in “historically informed” Bach performance in the last few decades. She freely employed liberal rubato, elastic tempo, and big, swelling crescendos. In a particularly old-fashioned twist, Chung omitted the second-half repeats in many movements, seemingly guided by no rule other than personal preference.

The very first movement of the evening, the Adagio of the G-minor Sonata, encapsulated the character of much of Chung’s recital. The roughness of her playing gave the music a feeling of approachability, as opposed to the more familiar, cold studio-recording polish. Her winding phrases began to feel like stream of consciousness, finding vivid color in little details, but occasionally letting the plan of the music get lost, as in the G-minor Fugue (and its A-minor and C-major counterparts).

The B-minor Partita is in a way the forgotten stepchild of the six, yet its emotions, properly explored, can be powerful. The Sarabande was unusually gripping in Chung’s rendition, more screaming than sobbing as she pressed into the string, following it with a haunting account of its double and a surprisingly crisp rendition of the tricky Tempo di Borea. The A-minor sonata seemed to lose its train of thought, especially in the opening Grave and in the Fugue, as firmly executed as it was. The Andante, one of the most intimate movements of the whole cycle, was appropriately personal, showing an unusually aggressive approach that dug deep into the string.

Any cycle of the Sonatas and Partitas will almost inevitably be dominated by the imposing figure of the D-minor Partita, the towering pillar of the violin literature. For the most part, Chung’s reading was reserved, not trying to put too conspicuous a stamp on the touchstone piece. The Corrente was perfectly straightforward, seeming, in fact, to sacrifice something in the way of fire for a little extra security, while she found delicate emotions in the tearful Sarabande. The monumental Chaconne was the only especially quirky movement in this reading, rather fussy in the early variations, but settling in beautifully to show a grasp of the deep tragedy of the piece.

The Fugue of the C-Major sonata is perhaps the most tiring movement in any of the six, demanding awkward hand configurations in its thick clusters of chords. At first glance it seems a disadvantage to come across this movement in the latter third of the recital, but Chung executed it surprisingly cleanly. Her freedom with tempo here tended to skew the subject out of proportion, when it would have been better to let the fugue move on its own momentum. By contrast, her modest reading of Largo was exquisite, showing off her most tender, limpid playing.

The E-Major Partita, as a whole, hung together the best of all, in spite of rather boxy readings of the two Menuets and more signs of trouble in the Bourée. Chung’s playing shone brightly in the rapid Preludio, which sounded far more secure than the other fast movements, followed by a lovely, sweetly lyrical account of the Loure.

For all its technical shortcomings, this recital made clear that Chung still has something worth sharing with audiences. And her affect in performance—drinking in the sight of the auditorium each time she took the stage, grinning and cheekily folding her arms when applause broke out in between movements—gave the whole recital a feeling of warmth as though we were hearing her in her own living room.

Yet, as after so many of these marathon performances, a listener has to wonder whether a more judiciously curated recital wouldn’t be a better vehicle for her talents. It’s one thing to have a large-scale piece or an operatic role in which the demands of stamina play into the interpretation. But when artistry has to compete with a display of fortitude for its own sake, it becomes tempting to trot out that old adage about valor and discretion.

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