Lammermuir Festival (3): Jennifer Koh Brings the House Down

23/09/2011

  Lammermuir Festival (3): Bach, Ysaÿe, Saariaho, Carter, Salonen: Jennifer Koh (violin). The Great Hall, Lennoxlove House, Haddington (Scotland). 20.09.2011 (LV)

Jennifer Koh at Lennoxlove House credit Robin Mitchell

Bach: Partita No 3 in E
Ysaÿe: Sonata No 2 in A minor
Saariaho: Nocturne: In memory of W. Lutosławski
Carter: Fantasy: Remembering Roger
Salonen: “lachen verlernt”
Bach: Partita No 2 in D minor

 At the Spaces of Music festival in Gniezno, I watched master class students of Yair Kless use relaxed bow arm and hands to miraculously free the music they were playing. So it was a shock on Tuesday night to witness Jennifer Koh’s titanic struggles on behalf of solo violin music, starting and ending with Bach, and in between, music connected by varying degrees of separation.

Perhaps it was the dramatic setting, the 14th century Great Hall at Lennoxlove in East Lothian, east of Edinburgh, with its two splendid stags on the wall behind her, rising on their hind legs rampant against the Inverquarity family crest and crown. Koh’s playing itself was no less rampant, injecting immense amounts of intense passion into the entire program. Gripping a bow in a crab-like vise, muscles standing out in her shoulders and arms as if she were an Olympic athlete, Koh gave Bach’s E Major Partita the ride of its life, then ripped without pause into the Ysaÿe Second Sonata, which begins by quoting the opening of the same Bach.

The music was all linked in some way: Bach to Ysaÿe, Saariaho to Lutosławski, Carter to Roger Sessions, Salonen to Schoenberg (Pierrot Lunaire), and Bach again to Salonen (each is dominated by a chaconne). The connections may have been remote to the audience, but Koh brought the kind of conviction and energy that overrode theory with deeply communicative music making, whether it was conventionally accessible Bach or the stark new frontiers of Saariaho.

Ultimately, neither the Saariaho Nocturne: In memory of W. Lutosławski (an exploration of early ideas for her violin concerto, Graal Théâtre), nor the Carter Fantasy: Remembering Roger (the last movement of his Four Lauds, which also honor Aaron Copland, Goffredo Petrassi and Robert Mann) was of more than passing interest. Salonen’s “lachen verlernt,” a serious 10-minute soliloquy on laughter, clowns and repressed emotions, was absorbingly cool, and seemed to have a calming effect on Koh.

The calm lasted after intermission through the first four movements of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor. Koh played in modified 20th-century mode, marginally aware of – but unconvinced by – authentic performance practice issues. Lines were smooth and phrasing throughout was deeply, if ascetically, poetic. The concluding Chaconne, however, reignited her ferocity and brought down the house with a rare Scottish standing ovation.

Laurence Vittes

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