Jennifer Koh's recording project explores the impact of Bach on later composers

Jennifer Koh, Jennifer Koh's Bach & Beyond

Bach and Beyond is a three-recording project by violinist Jennifer Koh to explore the impact of the solo sonatas and partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1001–1006) on subsequent repertoire for unaccompanied violin, including works by current composers. The recordings are being made by Cedille Records. The first part was released in October of 2012, and the second part came out last week.

The first part was a single CD framed by the E major (third) partita (BWV 1006) at the beginning and the D minor (second) partita (BWV 1004) at the end. Between them Koh performed the second of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Opus 27 solo violin sonatas, which explicitly quotes the Prelude from BWV 1006, along with two recent short works by Kaija Saariaho and Missy Mazzoli, respectively, both of which Koh links to the Ciaconna that concludes the BWV 1004. The second part is a two-CD set. The first CD couples the G minor (first) sonata (BWV 1001) with Béla Bartók’s solo violin sonata; and the second uses a longer Saariaho suite, Frises, to introduce the B minor (first) partita (BWV 1002). That leaves the remaining two sonatas, BWV 1003 in A minor and BWV 1005 in C minor for the third part.

These sonatas and partitas were composed in 1720 during Bach’s service as Kapellmeister to Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. Because the prince was a Calvinist who did not believe that elaborate music was required for worship, the “Köthen period” was a time of Bach’s prodigious production of secular, particularly instrumental, music. It may also be that the prince’s Calvinism did not attach much significance to idle entertainments for his court, which is one reason why I have conjectured that much of Bach’s work, particularly where solo instruments are involved, was created for pedagogical purposes, possibly including the prince as well as his own children.

Those purposes involve the twofold cultivation of technical skill and a capacity for inventiveness in execution. The latter is most evident in the BWV 1002 partita, in which each of the four dance movements is followed by a “Double,” an embellished version that puts those technical skills through their most demanding paces while offering up first-rate models of how inventive a composer can be. Nevertheless, the “spirit of dance,” so to speak, must establish itself in both of the versions of each of these couplings. Koh does an excellent job of living up to these demands.

Indeed, the best illustration of that “beyond” can probably be found in the Bach-Bartók pairing. Bartók does not slavishly use BWV 1001 as a model. However, his second and fourth movements are a fugue and a Presto, respectively, just as in BWV 1001; and his third Melodia movement could not be a better parallel to Bach’s Siciliana. One might call Bartók’s sonata an “appreciation” of BWV 1001, acknowledging its virtues while taking them in a new direction, if not to a higher level.

Furthermore, as far as programming is concerned, there is much to be said for recordings in which one does not listen to the Bach compositions one right after the other. Having other composers on each CD encourages the listener to seek out new ways of thinking about Bach and probably also new ways of thinking about the other composers.

Then, of course, one can always speculate about which compositions Koh will choose as “companions” for the remaining two sonatas.

 Read the rest of the review here