Pondering a Gifted Violinist and Stylistic Perceptivity

United StatesUnited States Bach, Prokofiev, and Saint-Saëns: Hye-Jin Kim (violin), Ieva Jokubaviciute (piano), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 13.1.2016 (BJ)

Bach: Violin Sonata in C minor, BWV 1017
Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 80
Bach: Chaconne from Unaccompanied Violin Partita in D minor, BWV 1004
Saint-Saëns: Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75

There can surely be no gainsaying the proposition that Hye-Jin Kim is a phenomenally gifted violinist. Her left hand achieves marvels of prestidigitation. Her bow arm is authoritative, and draws remarkably warm and vibrant sound from her 17th-century Goffredo Cappa instrument. Along with her admirably dignified deportment on stage, and reinforced by Ieva Jokubaviciute’s sensitive and often brilliant contribution at the keyboard, these virtues resulted in a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital that had me frequently thrilled. Thrilled, yet at the same time slightly disappointed.

Whether Hye-Jin Kim’s gifts as a violinist are matched by her gifts as a musician is a question I cannot yet venture to answer. Years ago, when Riccardo Muti was music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and he was asked to comment on the legendary “Philadelphia Sound,” he suggested in reply that this was just a public relations notion, and explained that what he sought from the orchestra was a Mozart sound, a Beethoven sound, a Brahms sound, and so on. Ms. Kim’s Bach and Prokofiev on the first half of this program went just as they should have done, but they sounded pretty well the same as each other. And aside from a moment or two of rhythmic vagueness forgivable in music as technically taxing as the famous Chaconne—and some rather over-loud fireworks in the Saint-Saëns—the same could be said of the two works she played after intermission.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not advocating some kind of dehumanized coldness of tone in the playing of Bach. Like all great music, Bach’s is, in the most profound sense of the word, romantic. But romanticism comes in different shades of tone from one composer to another and one period to another, and a lighter, less opulent sound is called for by the characteristic romanticism of Bach and his period. Listen, perhaps, to the exemplary performance of the Chaconne by Arthur Grumiaux that you can find on YouTube, and I think you will see—or hear—what I mean. There is about its lucidity of tone and texture a quality of unforced ease quite different from the more demonstratively emotional way the great Belgian violinist played music of later periods.

Ms. Kim is by no means alone in falling short, thus far in her young life, of the stylistic perceptivity I am looking for. I can remember hearing even Pinchas Zukerman in his mid-teens, half a century ago, play baroque and later works with a similarly undifferentiated sound. It was very soon afterwards that he developed the depth of insight that has made him one of the master musicians—not just violinists!—of our time.

Admittedly, at 30, Ms. Kim is already twice the age Zukerman was then. But musicians, like people in general, develop at different speeds. This formidably equipped Korean-born violinist is already impressive enough to leave me devoutly hoping that she may eventually attain a comparable level of musical understanding.

Bernard Jacobson

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