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First Fiddle

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
11/22/1998 -  
Franz Schubert: Sonatina in A Minor
Bela Bartok: Sonata #2
Robert Schumann: Sonata #2

Kyung-Wha Chung (violin)
Itamar Golan (piano)

Certainly one of the highlights of this year's New York season was the eagerly anticipated appearance of Kyung-Wha Chung as part of the Great Performers series. It is hard to believe but Ms. Chung has already been concertizing for over 25 years and today she proved that she is at the height of her powers. The concert began with one of the Schubert Sonatinas, those lovely pieces built on Mozartean models that the young Franz Peter wrote while still deciding whether or not to become a composer. They were never published in his lifetime and acquired the diminutive appellation from their publisher Anton Diabelli. These pieces are the epitome of Classical grace and Ms. Chung played this example in a technically flawless and correctly detached style (I heard a rumbling behind me that her playing was unemotional but the work and its performance tradition must be taken into consideration). This is not the Schubert of poignant evocation of Vienna but rather the eager apostle of deist art and the structure of the Enlightenment. Mr. Golan was an equal partner and matched Ms. Chung's conception perfectly.

There was no discussion of coldness after the Bartok. I firmly believe that since the death of Georg Solti Ms. Chung is the greatest interpreter of Bartok alive today. This incredibly complex essay on the Hungarian dance was written for a dynamo of a virtuosa, Jelly d'Aranyi, who possessed a Paganinian technique and a fiery temperament to match (Ravel wrote his Tzigane for her). Ms. Chung literally threw herself into this dissonant frenzy and seamlessly switched from pizzicato to upside down bow percussive effects to left hand pizzicato to amazingly strong bowing as if she were an actual part of the music itself. She learned this style from no less than Joseph Szigeti who was Bartok's violinist of choice for many years. The piano part is no less difficult (Bartok loved to play like a mad xylophonist) and the Israeli Mr. Golan reached the heights of pianistic excellence in magnificent syncopation to Ms. Chung's lead. It is not too often that one feels that they are in the presence of greatness and authority. During this performance one could close one's eyes and pretend to be at the Library of Congress listening to the landmark concerts of Szigeti and Bartok. In fact Ms. Chung is even more colorfully barbaric in her conception than her teacher, who was always leaning to the intellectual side.

On the balcony at intermission I talked to a young musician who had just sneaked in and wanted to know if they had done the Bartok yet. I made his disappointment worse, I'm afraid, by waxing poetic over this performance, but I highly recommended, since he had already eluded the ticket takers, that he stay for the Schumann. He declined and this was a shame for Ms. Chung put an end (hopefully forever) to the reputation of Korean violinists as unemotional. One of the true masterpieces of the Romantic repertoire the Schumann requires yet another totally different style of play and Ms. Chung was up to the task. From the sforzando downbow of the first note this was a performance of Herculean power and Byronic emotion. Particularly impressive was Ms. Chung's vibrato in the third movement, quite definitely a throwback to a bygone era. Incredibly this time the duo sounded like Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann, at least if contemporary reports are accurate. It is refreshing to hear a violinist who is so confident in her abilities that she can adopt an out of fashion style like this and embrace it as her own.

In an entirely different style, Ms. Chung played a small work of Debussy as an encore with a feathered touch that is probably the most difficult technique in her varied armamentarium. And even the dreaded portamento made an appearance (this woman has a wonderfully healthy contempt for musical fashion) in the second encore which I did not recognize but appeared to be in the salon style (Ms. Chung has a wee voice and so I couldn't hear the announcement). Concerts are increasingly rare for this consummate artist and so any opportunity is a golden one. I have heard Perlman in recital and he is fabulous (the best Bach partita that I have ever heard) but Kyung-Wha Chung is in this same rare category-a highly skilled technician with quite a bit to say artistically. She is the caliber of artist that can fill a large hall like Avery Fisher not only with patrons but also with a glorious afternoon of exceptional music-making.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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