IN: Reviews

Probing Emotional Depths of Bach’s Sei Solo


In a true labor of love, violinist Jennifer Koh played all of the Bach music for solo violin, BWV 1001-1006 at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport this afternoon. The concert lasted over three hours, but each half seemed to pass in a heartbeat because of the way that Ms. Koh presented the music. She asked for the shutters over the large picture window to be closed, ostensibly for temperature control but having the effect of focusing attention on the music without any distractions. She played with a pure tone, clean articulation, and a steady sound. Her stage presence was self-effacing and she effectively disappeared behind the music, making its effect on the audience that much more powerful.

The Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (“senza basso”) were finished no later than 1720, during Bach’s tenure as Kappelmeister at the court of Leopold in Köthen. They form a Euclidean Elements of 18th-century violin music, systematically exploring an ever-increasing intensity of meaning and sound while maintaining an underlying simplicity. And as with Plato, each generation can reinterpret the works for themselves — the depth of these pieces is inexhaustible.

The six solo violin pieces  comprise  three sonatas and three partitas, alternately. From the iconic opening chord of the G-minor Sonata it was clear that this would be a deeply personal, almost religious program. Ms. Koh played the set of pieces as a unified whole, a rite of passage with the Ciaccona as the climactic pivot. The progression from separation to discovery to reentry was clearly discerned in her playing, which moved from grave and deliberate to overwhelmingly intense to carefree and lively. For Bach the progression would likely reflect Luther’s appropriation of the Christian monastic threefold way (or road): via purgativa (emptying of self-arrogance), via illuminativa (communion with God) and via perfectiva (“walking with God” in everyday life).

Each sonata/partita pair could be seen as mapping out this journey, a reading that would illuminate some features of the performance, such as the surprisingly forlorn Siciliana in the G-minor sonata and the prayer-like andante followed by a fervent allegro in the A-minor sonata. Ms. Koh played the monumental Ciaccona with such authenticity of meaning that no external drama was needed. The C-major sonata then took on the character of a tentative and halting return to life, with the massive fugue marking the emergence from despair and the following largo a dawning realization that everyday life and ordinary actions are forms of devotion (e.g., playing Bach’s solo violin music). The final E-major partita, performed here with a vibrant and dynamic preludio, a wonderful festive Gavotte, delicate and graceful Menuets, became a joyous celebration of life.

The audience responded with great enthusiasm, and after the overwhelming emotional experience of the concert did not press her for an encore. What more was there to be said after this?

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.


18 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Sei solo?

    In editing this Golub review, I paused at the reference to Bach’s Sei solo. Golub can be counted on for accurately recording titles and proper names; nonetheless, I did my duty and checked. What I found is a fascinating account that I wish to share with you readers. The passage is from Realizations: A New Look at Old Music (2008) by Myles Jordan:

    . . . In July of 1720 [Bach] left Cöthen for a spa in Bohemia as part of a princely entourage, and on returning home was shocked to find that his first wife, Maria Barbara, had died and been buried weeks before. Although the original manuscript of these cello works is lost we do know they were designated as the second volume of (at least) a two-volume compendium. The first volume comprises his three sonatas and three partitas for unaccompanied violin (into which are encoded Maria Barbara’s name; Bach often used such symbolism in his works, usually in numerological form). The title page of his violin sonatas and partitas, surviving in Bach’s hand, reads: “Sei solo a violino senza basso accompagnato,” or, “Six solo for violin without basso continuo.” Why not “Sei soli” (“Six solos”), which would have been correct Italian? . . . Bach’s phonetically unmistakable non-sequitur appears to be a pun. To an Italian speaker Sei solo actually reads – variously, “You are alone,” or “He is alone” – a cryptic reference to Bach’s bereavement. This observation is not new but, reconsidered in the context of the cello suites and bearing in mind they are volumes I and II of the same larger work, it leads us to extrinsic meanings in all the unaccompanied instrumental works.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — July 16, 2012 at 12:03 am

  2. An encore after playing of all Bach solo violin pieces at one session? I am sure Jennifer and the audiences were craving for the “Flight of Bumblebee” but thanks God it did not happen.

    The reason am posting this reply is to make some justice. You see, if in 5000 years some archeologists would discover the transcript of this site and would try to learn about musical life in Boston in 2012 then by reading the Mr. Golub’s “review” they might feel that it was one of the many Boston’s inconsequential chamber invents. In my estimation it was very far from reality and the play that Jennifer Koh demonstrated was truly a nuclear explosion on the dilapidating cultural horizon of Boston’s suburbs.

    The magnitude of the event was huge and I would say that it was one of few greatest concerts that I was attended. I love any single aspect of it. I love Jennifer’s own idiosyncratic sound, I love her sensual phrasing, I love a very intelligent and very yielding way to transition notes, I love the class of her behavior, I love her shoe, I love her nail polish, I love absolutely everything she demonstrated. Jennifer was truly a perfect instrument and wonderful mechanism to indicate the superiority of Bach and supremacy of the BWV 1001-1006 over anything else was done in western music.

    Unfortunately the event like this came and gone. During the week when BSO entertained the Massachusetts hoi-polloi with pop repertoire and the patriotic songs the little brave girl on another side of town undertook the most complex, the most demanding repertoire known to violinist and demonstrated the quality of interpretation that shall be honored more than 3 flimsy paragraphs in BMI…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — July 16, 2012 at 7:26 am

  3. “In a true labor of love…” does that cliche mean she wasn’t paid?

    “she effectively disappeared behind the music” does that mean that she did not perform from memory?

    Comment by de novo2 — July 16, 2012 at 9:10 am

  4. Bettina: very interesting. Indeed, as Leon Golub pointed out, the feeling of “forlorn” was beautifully palpable. What I feel that Koh captured was that private bereavement opened Bach’s soul to a profound journey of unexpected transformation.

    Romy: in no way does Leon Golub’s review leave the impression that this was just another routine event! On the contrary. If you listen attentively, you will hear, behind the sober, restrained language, how clearly moved the reviewer was, even transported. My sense is that he agrees with you deeply about this extraordinary initiation.

    Novo 2: By “true labor of love,” the reviewer probably means that NO STIPEND OF ANY AMOUNT could ever do justice to the deeply personal “labor” (in the true sense of “giving birth to”, not in the “cliche” sense that you heard) and intense “agape” that Koh brought to her performance. Indeed, she seemed to be generating every note ex nihilo rather than merely “remembering” a “score.”

    Comment by Ashley — July 16, 2012 at 10:29 am

  5. Romy – it’s good of you to set the record straight for those future archeologists, though I’m not at all sure that there will be any humans at all on this planet 5000 years from now. Still, if there are any, then you’ve done the right thing.

    Comment by Leon Golub — July 16, 2012 at 5:20 pm

  6. If there are any humans left in 7012, I hope they will be reading the Intelligencer.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 17, 2012 at 12:41 am

  7. All that conversation around Jennifer Koh’s event brings an interesting point – how good was what Jennifer showed from more global perspective? At the very top of my list of all Bach interpreters sit early recording of Nathan Milstein. Milstein died in beginning of 90s and I never heard him live. He however left two series of Bach unaccompanied recordings from 50s and from 70s. The first one from 50s was nothing short of stunning and in my estimation the best Bach solo works ever committed to recording media. So, how Jennifer Koh’s Bach compared to Milstein’s play from 50s? From certain perspective I prefer Jennifer as her Bach is more “relevant”. I do not know how to describe it but she somehow made it more connected to our current life, vs. Milstein made Bach to be more academic. I also very much like Ms. Koh sound, in fact I absolutely adore it. Milstein’s Strud was brash and sometimes impetuous, his play was sparkling and the whole presentation was kind of forward and “in my face”. Milstein’s sound was way laid back then some other unnamed violists of his time but still I feel that he Bach was sometimes a bit more abusive then I would like it to be. Here is where my love to Jennifer Koh comes: her sound is spectacularly gentle and tender. It is not up to the point of Viktoria Mullova with her gut strings and tuned-down Guadagnini. Jennifer’s sound, in my view, is a very perfect balance between grace and elegance and at the same time an ability to deliver a transient beauty in very sophisticated and dignified manner, the manner Bach music calls upon. I wish Jennifer Koh would release her own Bach recordings. Sorry, I still can’t shut up about that that beautiful concert…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — July 17, 2012 at 6:30 am

  8. I’d love to hear you guys comment on how she rendered the Chaconne..

    Comment by Ashley — July 17, 2012 at 8:47 am

  9. I am glad you mentioned the chaconne, as the chaconne of the second partita is my reason for attending the performance, and satisfied I am! I must say, I was a little skeptical at the beginning of her performance, having fallen in love with Gérard Poulet’s Parisian version, and finding her interpretation tentative and variable during the first half. In retrospect, however, it seems that she had a plan all along: by the time she arrived at the chaconne, she had prepared us. We had absorbed all the complexity and chaos of life to culminate with the metaphysical, transformative event that became the chaconne, such that the dramatic change in her approach–to boldness and acceptance of a lyrical truth–became truly, as Leon Golub stated, a rite of passage. She was careful with every phrase, articulating its poetry with utmost sensitivity, such that cosmic expression came through in the simplicity of the utterly personal. It is difficult to imagine someone understanding better what Bach meant for this piece, what centrality it held for him in the Sei Solo, and what love went into its expression when encountered with the death of his beloved Maria Barbara….

    Comment by Xéna Lee — July 17, 2012 at 10:25 am

  10. Did anyone record this event? Alternatively, are there any recordings of other Jennifer Koh performances of the Six?

    Comment by Clark Johnsen — July 17, 2012 at 11:40 am

  11. There is a video of her playing the Chaconne on her web site ( and she has made a recording that includes the entire 2nd partita:

    Comment by Leon Golub — July 17, 2012 at 12:35 pm

  12. *** We had absorbed all the complexity and chaos of life to culminate with the metaphysical, transformative event that became the chaconne…

    Wonderful, Xéna, it can’t not be said better. I disagree, at least I did not feel, that Jennifer needed time to break-in. For me “it” started from the very first bar she played. The fuga from the first sonata were the truly indication of the greatness to come.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — July 17, 2012 at 12:49 pm

  13. That was my initial impression, but it is obvious that Jennifer Koh has a complexity and contemplative depth that is not easily decipherable–so I would cede your point, and in fact agree. Above all, we had the same experience of rare magnificence!

    Comment by Xéna Lee — July 17, 2012 at 1:27 pm

  14. *** There is a video of her playing the Chaconne on her web site …

    Thanks, Leon. I did not hear that CD and I have ordered it. From the sort fragment that Amazon allows to preview it did not impress me. To me it sounds very academic and institutionalized. I heard Jennifer Koh to play Chaconne twice live and both times she has her unique ruthless enthusiasm, some kind of subconscious zeal, that made Chaconne to be so uniquely hear own. I did not get it from the Amazon preview. As I understand the Amazon recording is by WFMT from 2001. I wonder if it was live event or it was another typically-boring studio recording….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — July 18, 2012 at 2:57 pm

  15. Rite of passage indeed it was. A week later, the effects of the concert remains, and what I find astonishing is that all of us who went together witnessed it as a cursum of life. While there is still no resolution, the ability to contain the uncertainty of life has grown, such that one can rise to dwell with the higher principle.

    Comment by Xéna Lee — July 21, 2012 at 9:39 am

  16. Xena, I have the same enduring feeling from the concert. Indeed, by the end of Koh’s Chaconne, I started to hear a very immense sense of trust vying with the grief, as it were. So: perhaps what you experience as “containing” despair. (?)

    I’m also curious to know if anyone has a reaction to how Koh played the 4th movement of Partita 2 (Giga), right before the Chaconne. Was she doing something special to prepare us? I heard rich warmth, golds, fire, delicate pinks – but maybe that was just me.

    Comment by Ashley — July 22, 2012 at 7:05 am

  17. Well, Xena, I am very much agree in it and I feel very much in the same way. In my view  the event that enfolded on that Sunday was a great testimony about magnitude of Bach music. No matter now great the player was the same feelings wold not be possible it was some king Stravinsky, Shonberg or Thaikovsky….     

    Comment by roomy the cat — July 22, 2012 at 7:12 am

  18. I agree with both of you, Ashley and Roomy–rich warmth, golds, and pinks were exactly what I heard in the Giga, and definitely there is an intimacy in Bach that is unimaginable with Stravinsky, Shoenberg or Tchaikovsky…. How marvelous to share these impressions–and to find them so much the same–as in a community of like-minded amatores!

    Comment by Xéna Lee — July 27, 2012 at 5:33 pm

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