Since her enforced retirement in 2005 due to a hand injury and having spent much time teaching since then, could Kyung Wha Chung re-conquer the stage that launched her career in the West?
The concert opened with Mozart’s sonata in G minor, K. 379, rather an odd choice since, as with many of Mozart’s violin sonatas, it is a work that places a dominant focus on the pianist’s role. Kevin Kenner met the challenge with robust brio from the opening flourish, integrating the ornamentation into the overall structure with tasteful discretion. Kyung Wha Chung, however, initially appeared a touch more reserved as she played from the score. Despite some robustly articulated phrases, there were several which suffered from being poorly intonated or bowed in a manner that completed the line in a sadly abrupt way, particularly in the Allegro section. But then, even when Chung was a regular on the world violin circuit she was ever one to do things capriciously. In the final paragraphs of the movement a pleasing sense of tonal majesty was evident from Chung, which Kevin Kenner sought to match with the grandeur of his playing.
The interval between the two movements was marked by extended and full-throated audience coughing, which noticeably irritated Chung. Just as Chung was about to resume playing a child coughed repeatedly in the slip stalls, prompting Chung to suggest that the parent bring the child back to a concert when older. Even if Chung was somewhat on edge at that moment, her interjection did nothing to calm the situation as shortly after this I witnessed a parent and two young children voluntarily exit the hall. Throughout the remainder of the concert Chung was to repeatedly fling glances towards where they had been sitting. The second movement did possess restraint in the crispness of Kenner’s playing and a certain filigree finesse in Chung’s playing of the violin part, finding meat on the bones of the variations of thematic material.
Prokofiev’s first violin sonata, written between 1938 and 1946, received an altogether more visceral performance which went some way to bring the concert to the level one had hoped might be achieved. The opening Andante assai was sombre, bare and uneasy, and Chung’a fearless attack and drive continued into the second movement, with its emphatic jarring jocularity. Thrilling if rather raspy depths of tone were evident here, quickly succeeded by some anxiously grasped mid-range utterances; at times near over-use of vibrato became a dominant feature but it merely added to the white hot drama of things that Kevin Kenner drove forward with inexorable dynamic force. A contemporary of Prokofiev’s piano ‘war sonatas’ the work might be – and it would be good to hear Kenner tackle those works in future – but rarely has the experience of watching a performance added so much to the experience: Chung’s sweeping bow arm articulations, controlled with absolute precision, meant she might just as well have been lobbing grenades over enemy lines every time she let forth another volley of yawps, screeches and yearning sighs.
An expressive depth of reflection for the state of humanity in a war-torn Europe forms the basis for the third movement Andante, and both performers proved alive to every nuance of meaning within the music. The playing carried all the required gutsiness but within it also fleeting moments of elegance that spoke almost of another time and place. Ultimately though it’s the violinist who feels this work’s personal drama the most, and Kyung Wha Chung did not shy away from ending the work as it had begun, with an uneasy and unnerving gasp of despair.
After the interval, Kyung Wha Chung took to the stage with what is still arguably the greatest challenge for a solo violinist: the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita number 2 in D minor. Given from memory, alone amongst the works on the programme to be performed thus, the piece’s full majesty gradually unfolded; whilst an impressive technical range was easy to admire, it was the sense of evolving architecture and form that Chung brought out that was most impressive. At its climax the cathedral of sound surrounding her had both elements of tonal richness and half-lit asides of delicacy within it. Fearless in the precision of her attack, but also with warmth in her vibrato-laden tone that reminded of many a yesteryear artist, Chung fashioned a convincing reading.
Franck’s Violin sonata in A major is a work Kyung Wha Chung has twice recorded, in 1980 with Radu Lupu and 1988 with Phillip Moll. This performance with Kevin Kenner got very much to the heart of the matter with the Romantic sensibility palpable from first to last in the opening movement’s meandering ardent phrases. Extremity of tempo choice for the second movement might have pushed things off course, were not Chung and Kenner fully up to the task in securing a thrilling reading that relied as much on the inner passagework as the main statements for its effectiveness. Dark deliberation imbued the third movement, prior to a return to outward ebullience in the finale. Flowers galore and standing ovations followed with some predictability, for what was a recital of somewhat mixed results.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.