Kyung Wha Chung’s Memorable Return to London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Prokofiev, J.S. Bach and Franck: Kyung Wha Chung (violin), Kevin Kenner (piano), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 2.12.2014 (CS)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Sonata in G K.379
Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No.1 in F minor Op.80
Johann Sebastian Bach: Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D minor BWV.1004
César Franck: Sonata in A


It is twelve years since London audiences were privileged to hear Kyung Wha Chung in live performance.  An injury to her left index-finger in 2005 forced the South Korean violinist to retire at the peak of her career and for the next five years she devoted her musical energies to teaching at the Juilliard School, mentoring young musicians, and giving charity performances in Rwanda and Korea.  In 2010 she returned to the stage, with a performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy, in Seoul; gradually she has resumed a concert life, with carefully timetabled concerts in Asia.

In recent interviews, Kyung Wha Chung has expressed her eagerness to return to Britain: ‘[It] is like a home-coming for me […] From 1961 through 1970, the US was my home.  And then I had that explosive debut in London.  British fans have been loyal to me ever since.  Kevin has been my musical partner for the last three years and we have built up a wide range of repertoire together that we have performed side by side.’  For this ‘home-coming’, Chung and Kenner assembled a balanced but varied programme of four works (which they had also presented in the preceding weeks, in Liverpool and Perth) which spanned the musical ages from the Baroque to the Modern.

When one has waited twelve years, one doesn’t want to rush things, and Chung and pianist Kevin Kenner made a slow, gracious entrance onto the Festival Hall stage.  Chung seemed quite overcome by the atmosphere in the venue where, forty-four years ago, at the age of twenty-two, she made her UK debut with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra.  She took time to take in the expanse of the Hall, turning to touch the piano and exchange a word or two with Kenner.  But despite the joy that the occasion must have inspired, Chung did not seem entirely at ease; the incessant audience coughing – which drew the violinist’s censure between the second and third movements of the opening Mozart sonata – perhaps did not help to settle her temperament.

Chung’s accompanist was, however, a calm anchor.  But, if Kenner’s manner was self-possessed and somewhat diffident in comparison to his partner’s emotional tension, his playing – throughout the recital – was anything but hesitant.  Mozart termed his violin and piano duos, ‘sonatas for piano and violin’.  Indeed, in a letter written in the spring of 1781 he was even more explicit about the primacy of the piano in the Sonata in G, K.379, when he described a concert given in Vienna which included three new works, including ‘a sonata with violin accompaniment, for myself – which I composed last night between 11 and 12 – however, in order to have it ready, I wrote out only the accompaniment [violin part] for Brunetti and simply retained my own part in my head’.

Kevin Kenner’s airy strokes, with the piano lid fully raised, at the opening of the Adagio might have suggested that the piano would indeed take precedence, and the right-hand decorations had a beautiful grace.  But, Chung’s assertive, forward-facing posture and direct tone indicated a more equal partnership – she had no problem projecting to the far reaches of the Hall.  The ensuing minor-key Allegro was full of edgy wit and acerbic energy, and Chung’s distinctive intensity and feistiness were much in evidence, swift flourishes of the bow and assertive flicks of her chin equally indicative of her concentration and single-mindedness.

The variations of the Andantino cantabile were characterised by extreme contrasts, such as between busy but lightly dancing passage work in the piano part and broader melodic gestures in the violin.  I did at times find Chung’s determination to reinforce the significance of the violin line a little mannered: for example, after the gentle but warm-toned mezzo forte pizzicato passage, the startling aggression of the subsequent fortissimo plucked episode was somewhat disconcerting and jarring.

Chung seemed to find the spirit of Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 in F minor Op.80 more natural territory.  Begun in 1938, the sonata was not actually completed until 1946, and the dark shadows and bitter energy which continually resurface, breaking through occasional dreamy wistfulness, seem imbued with the horrors of the Second World War and the murderous oppression of Stalin’s gulags.

Kenner’s restrained, low opening passage – a chorale-like melody which recurs to form a centre of gravity above and around which the violin experiments and elaborates at various points in the movement – certainly evoked grave sentiments.  Chung’s fluttering, murmuring motifs and scalic runs found release in a full-toned double-stopped melody but it was not long before the violin’s fleeting gestures returned, establishing a cool objectivity.  In the Allegro brusco Chung unleashed a series of brutal bow strokes and patterns, reminiscent of Shostakovich’s violent outbursts; even the more lyrical melody was tainted with a sharp, ironic suavity.  Kenner negotiated the full-blown piano part with remarkable restraint and clarity, never overpowering the violin but always emotive and communicative.

It was the grief-laden Andante which most effectively transported the entire Festival Hall to a world of ‘otherness’ and stillness; though her instrument was muted throughout, Chung had amazing presence and the violin’s melody was mesmerizing as she climbed high on the G string, juxtaposed against delicate high piano oscillations.  The finale, Allegrissimo, commenced in a lurching, whirlwind dance, but again the duo found pathos and lyricism amid the maelstrom; and the movement closed in quiet anguish.

J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from the second Partita in D minor is a magisterial central monument of the violin repertoire.  From the first it was clear that Chung would make it her own.  She sustained the melody warmly through the double-stopped texture, and adopted a forward-moving tempo; but bowing, articulation and most especially rhythm often offered surprises – not unpleasing, but designed to make one notice, think and reflect.  It was as if Chung was saying, ‘I’ve thought about this music, now you need to do more than just listen and feel, you need to engage actively too if you are to appreciate its riches’.

Most remarkable was the way in which the sixty-four repetitions of the chaconne progression formed a coherent whole; while individual variants were highly characterised, there was an overwhelming sense of unity, each part clearly belonging to the overall structure whose architecture was perspicaciously crafted.  It goes without saying that Chung’s technical mastery was in evidence throughout the demanding episodes: of first dancing spiccato semiquavers, lyrical melodic explorations, running scalic cascades and compact chordal blocks.  The violinist has remarked that the issues with her finger are ‘on-going’ although it is ‘much better’ following an operation just a few months ago; but there was no sign at all of any technical weakness.  In the climactic central sections of the Chaconne, with their virtuosic string-crossings and hand-contorting finger patterns, Chung’s bow glided with relaxed ease; I heard linear progressions that I had never perceived before and this freshness gave fluency and lightness to the detailed and densely textured music.  The transition to the tonic major was magically composed; after the storm, stillness.  And, the closing variations accumulated with controlled intensity towards a conclusion that was assured but suggested which also conveyed human humility.  This interpretation might not take central place in one’s CD collection, but it inspired fresh engagement with well-known music.

Bach’s music seemed to release an inner contentment, and Chung’s performance of César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A was a sublime outpouring of effortless lyrical splendour.  Judicious tempi allowed the music to speak for itself: the Allegretto moderato had fluency and poise; there was no mad dash through the Allegro, rather the tempestuous writing conveyed its own drama; the Recitativo-fantasia was flexible but perpetually unfolding; and the expansive arches of the Allegretto poco mosso sang naturally and joyfully.

This was an incredibly open and unaffected performance.  There were telling small details: the refinement of the delicate diminuendo at the conclusion of the Allegretto moderato’s final violin statement, which seemed to ebb into silence before being swept into the stirring piano rumbling of the following Allegro; the quasi-vocal eloquence of the third movement’s melodic utterances; the almost unbearable sweet, silky tone at the recapitulation of the Allegretto poco mosso; the ecstatic bloom of the concluding bars of the Finale.  Kenner, too, was remarkably assured.   I don’t think I have ever heard these unremittingly virtuosic passages played with such clarity and unaffectedness; there was deep passion, certainly, but no redundant, flamboyant bombast.

Throughout the evening, violinist and pianist were an indivisible partnership; Chung stood close to the piano stool, occasionally crouching and bending towards her accompanist.  Only in the accelerating coda of Franck’s second movement was there the slightest sense of less than perfect ensemble, and given the impetuous passion of these closing bars this can surely be allowed, even enjoyed.

Remarking on her enforced ‘retirement’, Chung has said, ‘Retiring from the public stage brought on a period of great introspection … I had to re-evaluate my life completely – my values did not marry up with my own capabilities.  I just took it as a calling – I had been blessed and now it was time to give back.’  In advance of this London ‘return’ she commented, ‘One thing that’s definitely changed is me.  My values are different now. I have a better idea of what is and isn’t important. I avoid the pressures and go at my own pace.  But what hasn’t changed is that the audience will get my 100 percent commitment, as always. […] All my life I’ve delivered.  And I’ll deliver again’.

And she did.  At the end of the evening, the audience was exhilarated and Chung was visibly moved.  She offered three encores: Schubert and Elgar, in which beautiful simplicity was its own argument.  This was a memorable evening.

Claire Seymour

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