It seems an unlikely concert title: Bach and electronic improvisations, but that is exactly what the unassuming Pekka Kuusisto informed us we were going to be experiencing at Kings Place on Monday night. Walking on to the stage in Hall Two, lit with coloured spotlights and carrying an electric blue minimalist electric violin along with a traditional instrument, one could have mistaken Kuusisto for a stage hand. Even following an explanation of the array of pedals surrounding his feet and delving a little into the Finnish folk tunes which inspire his work, I was still unsure as to exactly what we were to be hearing tonight alongside Bach’s Partita in D minor.

Pekka Kuusisto © Sonja Werner
Pekka Kuusisto
© Sonja Werner

The first improvisation was a little demonstration of some of the electronic effects that were possible. Based on a haunting Finnish funeral tune, Kuusisto used various looping, reverb and range-altering effects to create a mysterious wash of sound around the repeating melody line. Once we had been lulled into this slightly trance-like soundworld, Kuusisto picked up his acoustic instrument and the first movement of the Bach seemed to appear like a ray of sunshine out of this sea of electronic effect. This seamless transition was completely mesmerising – it was almost as if the Bach was simply another improvisation. Kuusisto’s natural tone and wonderful phrasing shone an entirely fresh light on this well known partita.

The following improvisation had a more upbeat, gig-like feel, using more “noise” effects created by rubbing the bow very hard across the strings. This minimalist dance music was then transformed into a vocalise, with Kuusisto using a similar electronic effect on a wordless vocal line, the string sound shimmering and morphing around the melody. This led without pause into the Courante – an equally cheerful dance, gracefully interpreted. The running nature of this movement leant itself to the simple and unpretentious style of Kuusisto’s playing and had a beautiful spontaneous quality.

The thunderous opening of the third improvisation used the range modulator to great effect, with low rumbling chords contrasting with a whistled melody line, which seemed to come to a head and then disintegrate into a simple unadorned whistled tune accompanied by a countermelody on the violin. The solitary nature led beautifully into the sombre Sarabande which seemed even more desolate in the context of the introductory improvisation. These new contexts created new and deeper meaning for the Bach movements with were completely original.

A percussionistic fourth improvisation was created through several looping effects, building layers of rhythm with another spooky melodic line, which eventually transformed into a very folk inspired dance tune, which led into a swift and rhythmic Gigue. Again, Kuusisto’s phrasing and articulation was exemplary, creating a fresh and light aura, with a folk dance feel.

The final movement of the partita is a substantial Chaconne. Three times as long as the other movements, the 64 variations on an eight-bar theme are a wonderful example of the complex textures that can be created by just one instrument. Bach treats the violin as a four-voiced melodic instrument and the variations increase in intensity and technical difficulty throughout, which Kuusisto made look incredibly easy. This amazing movement was a wonderful climax to an evening of completely unexpected life-changing music and I was completely in awe of Kuusisto’s exemplary technique, imagination and pure musicianship. If you ever get a chance to see this versatile violinist in action, seize it with both hands. It will be unforgettable.