Korean-born violinist Kyung-Wha Chung's presence in London this last fortnight has been a welcome renewal of acquaintance. Billed as one of the "Great Performers" in the Barbican's current celebrity recital series, she's a star who radiates a constant light. Though younger players may flair to greater magnitudes, she remains, with a handful of famous names, like a fixed constellation among comets, meteors and other nine- days wonders.
For her latest return she chose to focus on the concerto and three sonatas of Brahms. Nearly every major romantic composer including Bach is a featured in her current discography; she herself is a romantic player. Yet her passion is edged with steel. So who better to choose for a rounded view than Brahms the classical romantic, the man who wore both hats on a head full of thoughts of baroque counterpoint?
Chung's playing remains as strong as ever, the style no less dynamic and pitched at the peak of high intensity. The visual impression of both her Barbican appearances, with the LSO and Andre Previn on Sunday night, and with the pianist Peter Frankl on Wednesday evening, was of an artist existing in relation to the accompanying forces as a darting leopard relates to its quarry. The Brahms concerto,written "against the violin" according to Hans von Bulow, might have found a soloist more ready to explore its tender poetry, but none so sure in charting the depths of its many moods. Casual in flow, relaxed in tempi, the movements did not appear to be bound in mutual tension. The drama was internal; a matter of judging the balance between elements while pushing them to extremes. Quite rightly, the cadenza became an almost theatrical climax to the edifice of swiftly changing emotions.
After the interval, Previn's reading of Rachmaninov's Third Symphony was no less-finely judged. An astute partner in the Brahms, he was now free to press the credentials of a work he clearly loves. This is Rachmaninov's neo-classical symphony, its second movement, with its wonderfully foreshortened reprise, the smartest thing he ever wrote. Previn himself is one of the world's "Great Performers", his manner in a work like this one, with players like the London Symphony Orchestra, a brisk rebuttal of the jibe that, these days, conductors all sound the same.
Chung's partner on Wednesday, Peter Frankl, was more than just an accompanist, yet still left the violinist with room for manoeuvre. In the spotlight of chamber music, the more intimate nuances of her playing became clear: a surprisingly pale pizzicato, for example, in the Second Sonata's jesting scherzo; and in the big, gutsy theme of the Third Sonata's slow movement a rounded tone, but one that lacked a degree of Kreisler-like resonance. She belongs, after all, in the stars, at her best in the heights of the violin's range where precision, tact and bowing power make for inimitable music. This, and the fierce give and take of great performers, was the keenest pleasure of the evening.
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