A night of brilliant Bach

REVIEW / CONCERT

BACH CONTINUUM

Kam Ning & Loh Jun Hong, Violins

The Chamber, The Arts House Last Thursday & Friday

The six unaccompanied Violin Sonatas and Partitas of J.S. Bach appear regularly on recordings, but how often is the entire set heard in concert?

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One has to go back to 1999 when a young Chan Yoong Han performed all six in an epic evening at the old Young Musicians Society Auditorium in Waterloo Street.

Kudos go to The Arts House for programming these masterpieces, spread over two evenings and performed by two of Singapore's finest violinists.

Kam Ning and Loh Jun Hong are separated by almost a generation, but both have won international violin competitions.

Technical virtuosity alone is not enough for Bach's music, where the mastery of polyphony, clear-headedness of thought and innate spirituality are pre-requisites. Both of them possess these qualities by the bucket-loads.

Playing on instruments (from the Rin Collection) that existed during Bach's time certainly helped.

Both used vibrato sparingly, crafting a slender but incisive tone. Also buoyant in the articulation of rhythmic phrases, they strove to embrace the spirit of the Baroque.

Performing from memory, Kam opened the first evening with the Sonata No. 1 In G Minor (BWV. 1001), the shortest work of six.

From the outset, her grasp of the idiom was total, conversant with the linear and contrapuntal aspects of both slow and fast movements that made for utterly compelling listening.

Loh chose to play with a score, used mostly as a safety net, to surmount the eight movements of the lengthy Partita No. 1 In B Minor (BWV. 1002, also the longest), followed by the Sonata No. 2 In A Major (BWV. 1003). While his technique was adroit, there were moments that suggest he can still grow and mature with this music.

The second evening saw Kam opening with Partita No. 2 In D Minor (BWV. 1004), with the magnificent Chaconne as its crowning glory.

This and the extremely taxing Fugue of Sonata No. 3 In C Major (BWV. 1005) were endurance tests which she conquered with stunning aplomb.

Loh had some memory issues with movements from Partita No. 3 In E Major (BWV. 1006) - this time he played without a score - but recovered to close well.

It was a programming coup for both violinists to present later works inspired by Bach's muse.

On the first evening, Kam performed Bela Bartok's fearsome Sonata For Solo Violin (1944), modelled on Bach's four-movement sonatas. Displaying delicacy and violence to equal degree, she tore through its thickets of barbed notes like a demon possessed.

Not to be outdone, Loh's imperious account of Eugene Ysaye's four-movement Sonata No. 2 on the second evening was just as hair-raising. Here was Bach's inspiration, fused with Paganini's diablerie and the Dies Irae chant, updated to the 20th century.

As encores on both evenings, both violinists joined hands and minds for two of musical comedian Aleksey Igudesman's riotous arrangements, trifles calculated to take the listener as far away as possible from the company of Bach and friends.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2017, with the headline 'A night of brilliant Bach'. Print Edition | Subscribe