Kyung-Wha Chung shows some of the old magic at Frost Chopin Festival

By David Fleshler

Violinist Kyung-Wha Chung performed at the Frost Chopin Festival Thursday night. Photo: Kang Taewook

Violinist Kyung-Wha Chung performed at the Frost Chopin Festival Thursday night. Photo: Kang Taewook

At the height of her career, the violinist Kyung-Wha Chung held a secure position in the upper echelon of the world’s instrumental virtuosos. During the 1970s and 80s, she performed with the same major orchestras as her Juilliard contemporaries, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman.

A finger injury in 2005 and a desire to devote herself to her family led to her retirement. But in the past few years, she has been venturing back onto the concert stage, including a solo Bach performance last year at Carnegie Hall. 

Appearing in a joint recital Thursday with the pianist Kevin Kenner, Chung performed as part of the University of Miami’s Frost Chopin Festival.

In her comeback recitals, critics noted that her technique wasn’t what it used to be, choosing their words with care to give due respect to her achievements while not glossing over her shortcomings. 

But at her recital Thursday, the 70-year-old violinist displayed rock-solid intonation, a smooth bow arm and the sizzling passion that had given her recordings of the Romantic concerto repertoire such excitement.

Technical difficulties sometimes showed up in rapid passages, where notes got lost in a blur of sound. And her tone sometimes turned warbly. But she still produced the rich baritone timbre on the lower strings that had always given her performances such warmth.

In Fauré’s Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano, she painted the bittersweet melodies in subtle colors. She brought fire and verve to the rapid ascending octaves that marked climactic moments and brought an exultant tone to the ecstatic, exuberant main theme.

Kenner, playing with the piano lid open, didn’t hold back, playing in an engaged manner, with a rounded tone that allowed the essential percussive element of the piano to contrast with the violin without becoming jarring. In the Allegro vivo, Chung played with sparkling incisiveness, although some of the rapid strings of notes became indistinct. The concluding Allegro quasi presto was marked by Chung’s passionate, committed playing of the melodies high on the instrument’s top string.

Of course, a recital in a Chopin festival would be unthinkable without some Chopin, who was not noted for his contributions to the violin repertoire. Kenner performed his own reconstruction of Chopin’s unfinished Mazurka in F Minor, Op. 68, No. 4, playing with a feel for the elegant melancholy of the work’s rolling phrases.

Following without a break for applause, he launched into a much larger Chopin work, the Ballade No. 4 in F Minor. Playing with an urgency that informed the performance throughout, he generated a slow-building crescendo, with a natural rubato that brought the music to life. His smooth technique allowed him to give an effortless, lyric sheen to Chopin’s ornamental runs.

Not on the program was a surprise performance by the 16-year-old American pianist Talon Smith. He gave a precociously mature performance of Chopin’s Barcarolle, building it magnificently from its simple opening, with a lightness and delicacy to his playing.

The program concluded with Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major, a work she had recorded with the pianist Radu Lupu. 

In the opening Allegro, Chung brought passionate warmth to the arching main theme. In the second movement, over the hard-driving accompaniment of the piano, she brought biting force to fast notes on the violin’s lowest string. The broken chords on the violin in the Recitativo unfolded with majestic, unhurried dignity. In the last movement, she brought a celebratory tone to the joyful, long-bowed notes of the melody that brings the work to a close.

As an encore, Chung and Kenner played Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, with Chung bringing a veiled, inward, velvety tone to the long melody.

The Frost Chopin Festival runs through Saturday. Friday’s events include a free Stars of the Academy performance by young students at 7:30 p.m.


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Fri Jun 29, 2018
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