This Friday Warner Classics will release the first studio recording made by Korean violinist Kyung Wha Chung in about fifteen years; and, as is almost always the case, Amazon.com is currently processing pre-orders. The result is a two-CD set of the complete works by Johann Sebastian Bach for solo violin, Chung’s first-ever recording of this repertoire. For those who do not know the story, Chung had to stop performing in 2005 because of an injury to her left hand. This required her to stop performing for about five years, during which she focused her efforts on teaching and on raising her family.
Needless to say, her attention to pedagogy facilitated her maintaining her attention on the rich complexity behind the acts of making music, allowing her to think about music in terms of “virtual” practice. By February of this year, her body was ready to return to a recording studio (in St. George’s Bristol) to put her thoughts into physical action; and the last recording session for this album took place on the first day of the following June. However, those intervening years of teaching may well have been Chung’s primary asset in preparation for this occasion, since there is every reason to believe that Bach composed his three sonatas and three partitas for solo violin for pedagogical purposes, thinking of public performance as a corollary goal (if he thought about it at all).
Listeners today are so used to thinking about Bach as a “great composer” (scare quotes intentional) that there is a general tendency of overlook the attention that he paid to pedagogy. This was a practice that may well have begun at home, primarily with his sons; but it would be further extended to some of his patrons and eventually to the pupils at the Thomasschule zu Leipzig. Those pupils provided music for the four Lutheran churches in that city; and Bach provided the training for those pupils, often with music of his own creation.
However, as has been previously (and frequently) observed, Bach viewed pedagogy as far more than technical exercises for “drill and practice.” Fortunately, he took the trouble to document his agenda on the title page he provided for the publication of his two-part and three-part inventions, which he had written for the education of his son Wilhelm Friedemann. In that introduction Bach explained that he had written those pieces with two goals in mind: first, to cultivate clarity of execution, no matter how challenging the notation may be, and second, to cultivate the imagination behind the “inventiones” (ideas) that would provide the student with “a strong foretaste of composition.”
While the thirty inventions that Bach composed for his son are relatively brief, the solo violin works demonstrate that even the simplest of “seed” ideas can be unfolded into invention at great length. Indeed, it is because of Bach’s ability to keep going along such paths of invention, even when the seed is at its simplest, that it is far from out of line to assert that one of Bach’s most adept successors in the twentieth century was the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, whose capacity for invention was equally prodigious (sometimes to the aggravation of fellow musicians, such as Miles Davis). In the solo violin works two particular movements stand out as examples of how far Bach could take that capacity. The best known of these is the Chaconne that concludes the BWV 1004 partita in D minor, a track that goes on for almost fourteen minutes on Chung’s recording. However, even more impressive is the slightly shorter (a little over ten minutes) fugue from the BWV 1005 sonata in C major, in which prolongation goes beyond repeating a bass line and branches out into the many different ways in which a fugue subject may be used as a point of departure. (For the record this duration is considerably longer than that of any fugue in The Well-Tempered Clavier, and even the organ fugues do not come close.)
In the recordings she has made, Chung seems very well attuned to how much inventive imagination permeates this collection of three sonatas and three partitas. Furthermore, she plays with a keen sense of rhetoric that leads the listener on when it is clear that Bach has “yet another thing” to say before deciding to come to closure. In that respect she is definitely a latter-day kindred spirit of Coltrane’s legacy!
On the other hand her decision to perform on a “modern” violin often puts her capacity for clarity in jeopardy. The booklet notes by Julian Haylock address the issue of how earlier models of the violin were far more conducive to playing multiple strings simultaneously. Bach requires such simultaneities often, not infrequently engaging all four strings; and, unfortunately, deft arpeggiation does not always cut it, particularly when Bach has assigned different duration values to different notes in the chord. There are, of course, many violin parts that Bach wrote that work just as well on today’s instruments as they do on those of his own historical period. However, many of the movements in the solo sonatas and partitas are not among those violin parts. Chung, of course, can endow them with a convincing rhetoric of their own; but we still need to be clear that, in most of these cases, Bach had something else in mind.
Similarly, when it comes to the partitas, I side with those Bach interpreters who believe that Bach knew a thing or two about dancing when he assigned the names of dances to his movements. Over the course of this album, Chung’s sense of a dance behind one of the partita movements is a sometime thing. She tends to catch the spirit of a gigue or a courante but never quite grasps that a sarabande is stately, rather than just slow. Mind you, there is considerable debate about how those dances were actually executed in Bach’s day. Nevertheless, regardless of surface details, dance always involves some degree of “playing with the pulse;” and, in too many of the dance movements, Chung never really succeeds in establishing the pulse to a degree than she can then play with it.
On the other hand, there is a consistently appealing polished quality to her playing. Furthermore, she is far from the first violinist to put personal style above “historical fidelity;” and, given that she is playing for contemporary listeners, why should she feel obliged to do otherwise? Thus, I am sure that there will be many that will take great satisfaction in this “return album;” and those of us who are pickier about being historically-informed have any number of other sources through which we can seek satisfaction!