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‘Bach and Beyond’: Jennifer Koh’s unsentimental guide to composer’s legacy

At the Strathmore Mansion, Jennifer Koh explored the influences of Bach’s six sonatas and partitas. (Image courtesy of Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Christina Walker photographer)

The intimacy of the Strathmore Mansion’s music room and the no-nonsense intensity of Jennifer Koh’s musicmaking proved to be a potent combination for her appearance there Wednesday. The violinist, a Tchaikovsky Competition winner 17 years ago, has put together three programs she calls “Bach and Beyond” that explore the influences of Bach’s six sonatas and partitas for solo violin on the contemporary violin repertoire. This was the first of those programs, and she will return with the second in February. Plan ahead: If the second is as well-played and structured as this one was, you ought to go.

Unaccompanied pieces by Ysaye, Kaija Saariaho, Elliott Carter and Esa-Pekka Salonen were bookended by Bach’s Partitas No. 3 and 2, and while the most obvious influences became harder to recognize as Koh wended her way through the program, Bach’s exploitation of the violin’s harmonic possibilities and the logic of his musical structures were common threads.

Playing without of trace of affectation, a minimum of vibrato and almost no rubato, Koh kept things abstract all evening, even when digging with ferocious passion into the angularity of the Carter “Fantasy” or toying quietly with the lyricism of the Salonen “Lachen Verlernt.” She moved seamlessly — no time for applause — from the opening Partita No. 3 into Ysaye’s Sonata in A Minor, a piece that hijacks snatches from the partitas, uses them wildly and ends up sounding like Bach on speed — wandering through unlikely keys and extreme octaves with good-humored abandon.

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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