A Violinist Layers Bach With Relative Newcomers

Jennifer Koh
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

Pianists and guitarists often give solo recitals, while singers and most other instrumentalists invariably perform with piano accompaniment. But the intrepid violinist Jennifer Koh took to the stage alone for her concert on Sunday afternoon at the 92nd Street Y. 

The recital was part of Ms. Koh’s Bach and Beyond series, which juxtaposes Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin with contemporary works.

She began with a carefully shaped and idiomatic reading of Bach’s Partita No. 3, before plunging without pause into Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 2, which quotes the partita and the “Dies Irae” motif. Ms. Koh, a spirited and idiosyncratic performer, played the sonata with passionate zeal and vivid contrasts, nimbly conquering its virtuosic challenges and blazing through “Les Furies,” the whirlwind finale.

The program also included two contemporary works inspired by earlier scores. Kaija Saariaho wrote “Nocturne — in Memory of W. Lutoslawski” in 1994 after the death that year of the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, evoking his atmospheric textures and sonorities in this brief and ephemeral piece.

Elliott Carter’s “Fantasy — Remembering Roger” (1999) pays homage to Roger Sessions, an American composer who shared Mr. Carter’s modernist aesthetic. Ms. Koh sailed undaunted through this athletic piece, whose contrasting character veered from harsh dissonance to fleeting lyricism.

The most memorable of the recent works was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Lachen Verlernt” (“Laughing Unlearnt”), written in the form of a chaconne and accompanied by a video created by Tal Rosner.

The title refers to an excerpt from Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” in which the narrator begs the harlequin to teach her to laugh again. Mr. Salonen writes, “I felt that this is a very moving metaphor of a performer: a serious clown trying to help the audience to connect with emotions they have lost, or believe they have lost.”

The rhythms and moods of this harmonically rich work, at first peacefully lyrical and then frantic, were mirrored by Mr. Rosner’s images. Lines resembling violin strings contracted, expanded and danced across the screen in time with the music, later dissolving into nighttime cityscapes.

“Lachen Verlernt” is based on a repeated sequence of chords, as is the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, which concluded the program. Ms. Koh’s tone sounded more beautiful and penetrating here than in the third partita; she offered an interpretation commendable for its depth and communicative power.