Review: Kyung Wha Chung Is ‘Unequalled’ Making History at Carnegie Hall
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, May 19, 2017
As predicted, it was quite an evening. Looking like God’s soldier, her magnificent face rapt in her task, Kyung Wha Chung gave the first integral performance of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin ever attempted on the main stage of Carnegie Hall, commanding the Hall’s vast, otherwise empty stage as if it were her own universe, to do with as she wished. No one who was there will ever forget it—or should: this was a performance for the ages.
It was Chung’s first concert in New York in two decades, and the climax of a her astonishing comeback from an injury to her left hand that kept her sidelined for five years. You could hear evidence of this in the opening sonata—some rough intonation, bits of smudged passage-work in the fast movements—but once she warmed up, you could only marvel at how good she is, and how strong.
And I make no allowance for age here: Chung, at sixty-nine, has more stamina than most of her colleagues still in their actuarial prime, and her technical command remains comparable; musically and intellectually, she has few peers of any age; and as a stage-performer, she is unequalled. Bringing all of this together in the giant chaconne that concludes the D-minor partita, she gave the greatest physical performance of anything, in any genre, that I have ever seen, and I have lived a year longer than she has, and I have seen a lot of physical performances.
The chaconne may or may not be the biggest challenge in the set—Chung gives that palm to the fugue in the A-minor sonata—but it can serve as an epitome of all that is most characteristic and distinctive in Chung’s work: sovereign structural grasp, and the ability to convey it as if it were a function of feeling; distinct characterization of each section and contrapuntal voice, each with its own particular coloring; exquisite transitioning from one thing to another, revealing connections that convince the mind, ravish the ear, and move the heart, no matter how startling they may be; and staggering concentration, which has the paradoxical effect of making every note and gesture seem like something unique and perhaps unexpected, that has to be found.
It is this latter element that justifies playing the whole set end to end, in order: reduced to modern-day virtuoso fiddling, the pieces seem to lack bottom; done as a demonstration of historically-informed performance-practice, they can seem alternately didactic and precious; but with Chung, every line is a living thing with its own distinct energy and pathway, and the getting-there is all. It’s a long evening, and in a very good way it’s exhausting, but you come away from it feeling that you know what Bach was about, and that all those claims about his intimacy with the cosmic-divine are justified.
At the same time, Bach lived in one of the great dance-cultures of all time, and Chung never quite forgets the dancing feet behind all the heart-stopping melodies and the drop-dead counterpoint. The correntes really ran and skipped, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there was actual tango in the chaconne (wrong meter, wrong syncopation), you could sense Astor Piazzola lurking around somewhere in the background. The E-major partita brought the evening to a tired-but-happy ballroom-close, with something very much like country-fiddling in the preludio, and an opening gesture in the bourée that demanded foot-stomping and hand-clapping. (it’s well worth looking out Chung’s recording of the set, released last October by Warner Classics, where these moments are high-points, along with a breathtaking corrente in the B-minor partita.)
Chung played the “King Joseph Maximilian” Stradivarius of 1702, which more than lived up to its billing. Said to be the smallest full-sized instrument Stradivarius ever made, it “completely embraced the hall, the entire auditorium,” as Chung told us in an interview last week. The feeling was mutual. I could go on, but I would sound like a crazy-man. It was a great night.
Kyung Wha Chung, violin, in concert at Carnegie Hall on May 18, 2017.
BACH: Six Solos for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1001-06
Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001
Partita No. 1 in B Minor, BWV 1002
Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003
Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004
Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005
Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006
Cover: Kyung Wha Chung; photo: Steve J. Sherman.