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?