By James McQuillen
October 16, 2006
Symphony premieres, typically of music recently composed, are vanishingly rare. Rarer still are premieres of works that have long been in the canon but have somehow escaped an orchestra's attention. So it came as a surprise to learn that the Oregon Symphony's performance of Karol Szymanowski's 90-year-old Violin Concerto No. 1 Saturday night at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was its first ever.
Whatever the reason for previous music directors' inattention to one of the last century's great concertos, this performance was worth the wait. In soloist Jennifer Koh, conductor Carlos Kalmar and the orchestra had an ideal marriage of piece and performer.
Szymanowski was perhaps the best-known Polish composer between Fredric Chopin and Krzysztof Penderecki, and his influences ranged from Chopin's early Romanticism to the enigmatic mysticism of Alexander Scriabin and the impressionistic textures and colors of Claude Debussy. The one-movement concerto presents this unlikely heterogeny in perfect balance, flirting with melody, fading in and out of mystery and combining limpid clarity with slow-burning intensity.
The intense Koh seemed entranced as she traversed the piece -- like the melodic content of the solo line itself, she was there but not quite there, grabbing a listener by the collar while at the same time drifting off, gently pushing the music forward by leaning into phrases and reining it back in with the slightest pull of tempo and dynamics. Her extraordinary 1727 Stradivarius with its rich upper register was likewise perfect for the piece, which rests largely in the violin stratosphere.
Kalmar and the orchestra followed with a fine account of Brahms' Fourth Symphony, carefully crafted in lean, lovely sound. After the Szymanowski, Brahms has hardly seemed more sober.
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