Album Review: Jennifer Koh Sparkles in `Bach & Beyond Part 1’

Chicago native Jennifer Koh‘s Bach & Beyond Part 1 (released by Cedille Records) demonstrates the violinist’s ability to tackle the most technically difficult and melodically tangled music with clarity and ease. This album is the first in a three-part series of recordings based on her critically acclaimed “Bach and Beyond” recital series which explores the history of the solo violin repertoire.

Bach & Beyond Part 1 includes J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006; Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 2, Op. 27; Kaija Saariaho’s Nocturne, Missy Mazzoli’s Dissolve, O My Heart; and Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. BWV 1004. The Ysaÿe, Saariaho, and Mazzoli each contain quotations from one or both of the Bach works.

Koh’s tone in the Bach E Major Partita sparkles like sunlight on a lake. Two movements of particular note are the Prelude, which ripples between lively off-the-string strokes and liquid legato, and the delicate grace of Menuet I & II.

Eugene Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 2 opens with a quotation of Bach’s E Major partita, causing one to wonder if the album has skipped back to the first track. A few notes later, a jagged atonal sequence assures the listener that he is indeed in Ysaÿe-land. Koh conquers the Sonata’s byzantine tonalities and pyrotechnical skills with a clear sense of counterpoint, perfect intonation and melodic line.

Koh engages in sonic experimentation with Kaija Saariaho’s Nocturne and Missy Mazzoli’s Dissolve, O My Heart. Koh weaves a delicate spider’s web of harmonics and ponticello (playing near the bridge of the instrument to create a translucent tone) in the Nocturne.  By contrast, she explores the earthy sonority of the violin’s open strings in Dissolve.

Koh closes the album with a straightforward but masterful performance of J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 2. The Allemande and Sarabande are solemn and contemplative, while the Corrente and Giga drive forward with a rhythmic engine.  Koh delivers a technically solid Ciaconna with long, arching phrases.

The album is available both for digital download and on CD. Click Bach: Violin Partitas Nos. 2 & 3 – Ysaye: Violin Sonata in A Minor (Bach and Beyond, Pt. I) to purchase through iTunes and Bach & Beyond, Part 1to purchase on CD.

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