At the end of the first movement of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata no. 1 in F minor, there is an extraordinary passage. As the piano plays a thoughtful, sparse series of chords, the violin plays flowing rising and falling scales at a dizzying speed which reminds one of Flight of the Bumblebee. But this is no showy extravaganza: our bumblebee here is an uncertain and introspective one, for the violin is played at the faintest pianissimo. Under the exceptional precision of Kyung Wha Chung’s fingers and at a volume that was barely audible, it was music of gossamer delicacy to soothe the soul, and it delighted again at the repeat in the fourth movement which closed the work and the first half of this concert.

Kyung Wha Chung © Kang Taewook | ICA Artists
Kyung Wha Chung
© Kang Taewook | ICA Artists

The occasion was an emotionally charged one, both for Chung and for the legions of her adoring fans who packed the Royal Festival Hall. One of the great musicians of the last century, Chung suffered a finger injury in 2005 which led her to believe she could never play concerts again. Her 1970 debut at the RFH was a triumph which launched her career: the best part of half a century later, could this concert launch its revival?

The start was a touch jittery, in spite of what was presumably chosen to be a relatively undemanding opening number, Mozart’s Violin Sonata in G major, K379 being a work that was only just beginning to break with the earlier style of violin sonata in which violin was distinctly subservient to the piano. Chung was able to display to best advantage the honeyed timbre that she can extract from her Guarneri: total clarity combined with a rare level of warmth that she could apparently increase or reduce at will as she altered the level of vibrato. But she and pianist Kevin Kenner did not seem at ease. Kenner played with fluidity, but he used a fair amount of rubato and the two performers did not combine with confidence. When the pause at the end of the first movement was met with a veritable barrage of coughing from an implausibly large number of flu-stricken audience members, Chung took a long time to compose herself, shut out the distractions and regroup for the second movement.

But regroup she did, and the following performance of the Prokofiev showed her mastery of the different moods and voices of which the violin is capable. The first movement is dark and contemplative, which suits the wonderful tone in the lower register of the Guarneri, leading up to that extraordinary passage of featherlight virtuosity interspersed with pizzicato phrases from which Chung extracted a startling level of attack. The second movement has been described as a “brutal scherzo”, its interplay between the two musicians alternating between violent antagonism and schmaltz-laden reconciliation. Again, it showcased Chung’s best qualities: the precision of her fingering and ability to find attack in the aggressive passages, and her warmth and legato in the reconciliatory ones. The last movements of the work become ever more frantic and, paradoxically, the more complex the music became, the more Chung seemed at home.

After the interval, Chung returned alone for Bach’s great Chaconne from the D minor Partita, a work that for me and many others remains unsurpassed, the supreme work for violin. It’s also a work that stretches its performer to the limit: while many can cope with the virtuosity of its fast runs and repeated double- and triple-stops, it takes something really special to fully render the architectural integrity created by the work’s complex and subtle harmonic progression. Chung’s performance may not have been studio-perfect, with occasional misbowings and notes that didn’t quite come out at the right dynamic. But the architectural integrity was absolutely there, in no small part because the timing of the arpeggiated chords was so precise as to make the harmonies completely transparent. In addition, Chung controlled the dynamics of the fast passages in the middle section so well as to produce a wonderful ebb and flow.

Kyung Wha Chung © Martin Kendrick | ICA films
Kyung Wha Chung
© Martin Kendrick | ICA films

I had doubted whether the classical immensity of the Chaconne could be followed successfully by a romantic sonata, but I was wrong. The closing work in the programme, César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A major, was written as a vehicle for the celebrated sweetness of Eugène Ysaÿe’s timbre, with the score littered with markings of “dolce” and “dolcissimo”. In this work, for the first time in the evening, Chung and Kenner were able to dispel any doubts about the togetherness of their playing: the timbre of both instruments combined to produce true romanticism and abandon. And they brought out some of the surprises in the work, whether it be occasional blue notes (not exactly the norm, in 1886) or touches of Spanish dance.

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