Violinist Kyung Wha Chung Prepares for a Series of Firsts at Carnegie Hall This Week
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, May 15, 2017
Bach’s modestly-titled Six Solos for Violin without Bass Accompaniment are the Mount Everest of that instrument’s literature, ventured again and again in the safety of the studio—there are more than 80 complete recordings currently available—but almost never attempted, live, in a single concert. On May 18, the great violinist Kyung Wha Chung will scale that Everest in Carnegie Hall, celebrating the anniversary of her debut there fifty years ago, to the day.
This will be Chung’s third trip up the mountain in as many weeks, following a warmup recital at St. George’s, Bristol (UK) and a triumph in London’s Barbican. The Times of London described the latter as “an epic struggle being played out by this tiny individual, alone on the big stage with her fiddle, her genius and the eternal towering demands of Bach,” noting that Chung played “the most monstrous movements in the whole cycle—the massive fugue of the C major sonata and the 64-fold chaconne that ends the D minor partita—with a marvellous sweep and authority.”
The Carnegie event marks not only Chung’s first concert in New York in 20 years, but also the first time in the hall’s 125-year history that the Bach set has been performed there on the main stage, Stern Auditorium, of Carnegie Hall in its entirety. In addition, it sets the seal on Chung’s comeback from an aggravated tendon in her left hand that kept her sidelined for five years. Now fully recovered, Chung felt more and more drawn to the Bach pieces: “This music is magic—absolute magic—it’s a gift from God,” she told us in an interview, shortly after coming home from a three-hour rehearsal on the Carnegie stage. “It’s a tremendous privilege and blessing that I feel, that I was able to do this for a year”—she’s done 20 performances of the set since last May, nearly half of them in single evenings—“and that is truly the most satisfying experience, to see all the compositions together in one evening: it brings a different realization for performer and public.”
Her recording of the set, released last October by Warner Classics, went straight to the top of the pile. Gramophone praised “the gently forward-moving swing of the sarabandes and easy airborne rapture of the freer slow movements, the fizzing delineation of lines in the Third Sonata’s Allegro assai and, above all, the compelling trajectory of the Second Partita’s Chaconne, sent on its way with whiplash multiple-stops.”
Chung herself emphasized the importance of dance in this music: “Live performance is because music should dance, and the most important part of the partita form is that is has this characteristic,” a realization that has become widespread in much recent scholarship and performance. Chung’s teachers, she said, “would be shocked at how fast” these pieces are played today. “I do not get nervous but, performing, obviously, there is tension, especially in the fast movements, and that tends to push the tempo, so it gets even faster. So what I really try to do is hold it back, so let’s see if I can hold it back in Carnegie Hall. Excitement is not indicated by increase of speed!”
Surprisingly, Chung feels that the biggest challenge in the set comes not from the familiar landmarks—the “monsters” that the Times of London admired—but the mid-length fugue in the A-minor sonata. “It’s a tremendous challenge to hold that from the first note to the last,” she said, “an incredible challenge for the violinist to play. I like it immensely.”
She will play an instrument that she acquired only seven months ago, the “King Joseph Maximilian” Stradivarius of 1702. “I was really surprised that Strad actually made such a small-sized full-size violin,” she said. “The sound is tremendous. Today, when I was playing on the Carnegie Hall stage, it just completely embraced the hall, the entire auditorium. Strad has a clarity that’s perfect for Bach, and for my age, because it has a much quicker response. I feel very, very fortunate I met this instrument now. It’s wonderful.”
Should be quite an evening.
Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to state that this performance will be the first complete traversal of the solo sonatas and partitas for violin by J.S. Bach to be performed on the main stage, Stern Auditorium, of Carnegie Hall. Gil Shaham performed the complete set in October 2015 in Zankel Hall, another venue at Carnegie Hall.
Cover: Kyung Wha Chung; photo: Kang Taewook.