Music and Vision homepage

Record Box

Singing Qualities

Jennifer Koh plays Szymanowski, Martinu
and Bartók,
reviewed by

Cedille    CDR 90000 089

Jennifer Koh - Portraits. © 2006 Cedille Records

The word 'fantastic' is much less commonly used today in its wider sense of fanciful, capricious, extravagantly imaginative. A pity, because it sums up so well the emotional world inhabited by Szymanowski's First Violin Concerto [listen -- track 1, 0:00-1:34]. In a single, multi-sectioned movement with several changes of mood, it dates from 1916, when his love affair with Eastern cultures, and the resulting atmosphere of heady exoticism in his music, was at its height.

American violinist Jennifer Koh surmounts the concerto's fearsome technical difficulties with extraordinary facility, and is completely inside its expressive character. An obvious comparison is with Nicola Benedetti's début disc for DG (987 057-7). The Chicago-based Grant Park Orchestra doesn't quite have the tonal allure of the London Symphony Orchestra for Benedetti, and the Cedille performance overall is slightly cool compared with the more richly coloured and extravagantly toned Benedetti/LSO. Where Koh and her partners do score, though, is in revealing more sharply the dance rhythms that underpin much of the music.

Martinu's Second Violin Concerto, written for the Russian-American violinist Mischa Elman in 1943, is in the more conventional three movements. The first is a big-boned piece -- tense and darkly coloured, but with plenty of contrasting lyrical moments and a quiet, withdrawn ending. The central movement is lighter and more pastoral in feel, while the finale is vigorously energetic. Occasionally some of the earlier anxiety creeps back, but generally it is typical of Martinu at his most engaging. Again, Koh is in complete command of her material, with her singing qualities coming into their own particularly in the second movement [listen -- track 3, 0:58-2:07].

Finally, an oddity from the young Bartók. Two Portraits is a by-product of the concerto he wrote in 1908 for the violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom he was in love (but not she with him). When she broke off contact with him he withdrew the concerto, detaching the first movement, to which he added a short, pungent scherzo for orchestra alone, a transcription of the last of his Fourteen Bagatelles for piano [listen -- track 6, 0:00-0:37]. These became portraits of Geyer, the 'Ideal' and 'Grotesque', respectively. Koh handles the long flowing lines of the first movement with great poise, while Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra despatch the second with incisively rhythmic playing.

Jennifer Koh is not as well known in the UK as she clearly deserves to be. I hope we shall hear more of her.

Copyright © 7 August 2007 Mike Wheeler, Derby UK


Jennifer Koh - Portraits

CDR 90000 089 Stereo NEW RELEASE 65'15" 2006 Cedille Records

Jennifer Koh, violin; Grant Park Orchestra; Carlos Kalmar, conductor

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937): Violin Concerto No 1 Op 35 (1916); Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959): Violin Concerto No 2 H293 (1943) (Andante; Andante moderato; Poco Allegro); Béla Bartók (1881-1945): Two Portraits Op 5 (1911) (Idealistic - Andante sostenuto; Distorted - Presto)


 << Music & Vision home      Recent CD reviews       John Rutter >>

Download a free realplayer 

For help listening to the sound extracts here,
please refer to our questions & answers page.

Record Box is Music & Vision's regular series of shorter CD reviews