Several years after her return to concertizing following an injury-related hiatus, Kyung Wha Chung returns to the recording studio for the first time in more than 15 years with no less than Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. Naturally, a violinist of international stature in her late 60s braving the Mt. Everest of unaccompanied violin repertoire will come in for close scrutiny. Indeed, Chung’s Bach has markedly changed since her 1975 Decca recordings of the Second Partita and Third Sonata.
She scales down her dynamics and varies her articulations to a more pronounced degree, layering both the real and implied polyphony with greater harmonic and textural awareness. While Chung’s discretionary vibrato and leaner though stillRead more gorgeously modulated sonority are further indicative of period-performance practices, the latter’s mannerisms (short-breathed phrasing, sudden dynamic swells, threadbare tone, and compulsive ornamentation) play no part in Chung’s conceptions.
Two movements particularly demonstrate Chung’s interpretive evolution. Chung’s earlier C major Sonata’s Allegro assai is brisk and direct, technically confident, and full of positive drive, whereas the remake’s similarly steady yet slower basic tempo allows a wider berth of inflection and phrasing asymmetry, although the leaps to the G string are not so consistently assured regarding intonation. By contrast, the D minor Partita’s monumental Chaconne is generally faster and lighter, with the long elaborate lines unfolding in sweeping, narrative paragraphs.
Other memorable examples include Chung’s animated, seemingly offhand way with the A minor Sonata’s Fugue and E major Partita’s Gavotte, along with the gentle conversational fluency between single melody lines and double notes in the G minor Sonata’s Siciliana. Rather than treat the C major Sonata’s opening Adagio as a dirge, Chung moves the music along yet still takes time to milk the dissonances and to vary the dotted rhythms without distorting them.
It goes without saying that there are many ways to scale Everest, and Chung will not necessarily displace your favorite Sonatas and Partitas recordings. However, it’s clear that Chung has lived with and absorbed this music, and that one can learn a lot from her deep-rooted, organic fusion of “old school modernity” and “new school antiquity”. In short, I can live easily and satisfyingly with the mature Chung’s Bach, just as long as I can take her younger self’s more vivacious Decca disc out for a spin sometimes!