At its worst, the typical classical music competition, viewed by so many in the business as a necessary means to make one’s mark, can be a crude affair, less artistic showcase than sporting contest, in which individuality rarely triumphs; the winner tends to be the safest pair of hands, the entrant who offends the fewest jurors. In that sense, the now-defunct Edgar M. Leventritt Competition always stood well apart. According to the Leventritt model, musicians weren’t pitted against each other, but rather were judged individually against an artistic, intellectual ideal. Over the years, first prize was bestowed upon the likes of Alexis Weissenberg, Gary Graffman, Itzhak Perlman, Eugene Istomin, and Arnold Steinhardt, but the jury also reserved the right not to award a prize if its standards weren’t met, something that happened numerous times. Yet only once since the advent of the competition in 1939 did jurors award two first prizes—in May 1967, when an 18-year-old Pinchas Zukerman and a 19-year-old Kyung Wha Chung shared the honors.
Born in Seoul, Chung made her debut with that city’s philharmonic orchestra at the age of nine, then moved to New York at 13, to study at Juilliard with the prominent pedagogue Ivan Galamian (Zukerman was also a student of his). Chung’s Leventritt success led to solo engagements with the Chicago Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Cleveland Orchestra, among other American ensembles, and in 1970, she got her chance to impress in Europe. When Perlman had to cancel performances with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, Chung proved a more than capable substitute, wowing audiences with her interpretation of the Tchaikovksy Violin Concerto.
Chung’s earliest recordings—in collaboration with Previn, Rudolf Kempe, and Charles Dutoit—remain thrilling to this day. Her version of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is brazen and larger than life, yet always musical and impeccably phrased. Her Tchaikovsky is intensely muscular (the sound not exactly voluptuous but fiery and focused), her attacks pushing that sound to the edge without ever sounding strained—and with no sentimentality in any line or phrase. The third movement in particular is one of the most visceral accounts I’ve heard, the nimble sixteenth-note passages electric, each note crisply articulated. Her Sibelius is even more impressive: relentless, driven, even a touch angry in the first movement, cool and concentrated in the second, incisively rhythmic in the third. When I listen to a violinist such as the impeccable Christian Ferras play this piece, I sense a profound sadness. When I hear Chung’s unmerciful account, I experience something altogether different; it’s a feeling more akin to fear.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Chung inhabited the top stratum of concert violinists, making wonderful recordings of the standard 19th-century repertoire (both concertos and sonatas) as well as landmark works of the early 20th century by Berg, Bartók, Walton, and Stravinsky. In 2005, however, she suffered an injury to her left index finger that no amount of cortisone could heal. Just prior to a concert with the conductor Valery Gergiev, her finger gave out entirely, and for the next five years, she could not play in public. Slowly she made a comeback, and in October 2016, she entered the studio for the first time in two decades to record the summit of the solo violin literature—the Six Sonatas and Partitas of Bach. Having only recently purchased this recording on vinyl, I was eager to hear not only how Chung had come through her injury but also what she had to say, at this stage of her career, about these seminal masterpieces.
Would she, I wondered, incorporate elements of historical performance practice? To some degree, yes: in the first movements of the Partita No. 1, the Sonata No. 1, and the Partita No. 2, she plays with limited vibrato and with an austere approach to ornament. That’s not to say that these performances are mechanical in any way. Indeed, she plays with a great sense of freedom, indulging in plenty of rubato (that is, the subtle contraction and expansion of tempo within a particular phrase), though occasionally, this leads to some idiosyncratic phrasing, as in the Sarabande movements of the Partita No. 1 and the Partita No. 2. More often than not, the effect is magical. In the Adagio that opens the Sonata No. 1, the quiet and meditative lines are so ethereal, they seem to float—it’s as if the violinist were inventing this music on the spot. When she plays things straight, taking fewer liberties in terms of tempo, style, and phrasing, the results are no less impressive. This is the case with her Partita No. 3, a beautiful and thoughtful reading.
Yes, there are flashes of the old Chung fire—especially in the set’s massive fugues, the most taxing of which lies at the heart of the Sonata No. 2, which she conceives on an epic scale—though generally her sound has mellowed. There is something humble, introspective, almost religious about these interpretations. Perhaps the highlight of the entire recording (and truly, what should be the highlight of any set of Bach Sonatas and Partitas) is the mighty Chaconne in the Partita No. 2—thoughtful and daring, and with plenty of the virtuosity needed to tame this glorious wild beast. The Chaconne is a dance of many variations, and each section here has a character of its own, without any loss of structural unity. Again, an improvisatory quality is palpable in places; just listen to the polyphonic passage leading to the theme’s restatement, just prior to the change of key. At any rate, it’s an inimitable Chaconne, and that’s saying something. Indeed, I’m always amazed that after all the many splendid interpretations of these six masterworks that have been set down—by Henryk Szyerng and Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein and Joseph Szigeti, Oscar Shumsky and Arthur Grumiaux, Gidon Kremer and Johanna Martzy, to name my own favorites—an artist can find in the pages of these scores something new to express. In Chung’s autumnal, sage, distinctive readings, the pleasures to be had are many.
Listen to Kyung Wha Chung play the Bach Chaconne, in this recording from 2016: