Most classical musicians “don’t do God”, in Alistair Campbell’s notorious phrase. Kyung Wha Chung is different. ‘‘I have a deep faith,” she says. “I walk out on stage, and God is with me all the time”.
The Korean violinist has returned to the world’s concert halls after recovering from a hand injury which almost ended a career spanning more than half a century. She talked to me in Verbier on one of those Alpine summer afternoons when sunshine, cloud and rain vie for supremacy in an elemental struggle.
Two hours earlier Chung had walked off the platform to a standing ovation from the latest leg of a comeback tour. In Prokofiev’s 1st Violin Sonata, the famously tigerish ferocity of her lower register had lost none of its teeth. Two years ago she played at the Royal Festival Hall in London for the first time in a decade, and provoked less comment for her playing than her tetchy onstage response to the parents of a coughing child in a noisy audience.
She has also returned to the recording studio. For Decca Records and then EMI (now part of Warner Classics) she made a string of collectable recordings until 2001, covering the peaks of the classical repertoire for violin: concertos by Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, chamber music by Debussy and Mendelssohn, and inevitably The Four Seasons of Vivaldi.
Now Chung has gone back to Bach. Just as the Cello Suites and Well-Tempered Clavier are the Old Testament of technique and expression on their respective instruments, so the six sonatas and partitas have an almost biblical authority for violinists. Like all serious string players – almost all musicians – Chung has played Bach since childhood.
“I started to play unaccompanied Bach when I was 13,” she says. “I had gone to study with Ivan Galamian at the Juilliard School in New York, and the first thing he gave me was the preludio from the E major Partita. Then the G minor Sonata – and I didn’t know what I was doing. The fugue was beyond me. But by the time I was 17 I could play all six.”
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