By Henry Fogel
May 1, 2006
Some careers, particularly for violinists, seem to take off like rockets. The violinist is first heard from when he or she (and it seems it is often “she”) is a teenager, everyone in the music world is amazed, and ten years later we hardly hear that violinist’s name. This isn’t always the case – but it seems a very common path.
Then there are other careers that build slowly and naturally, giving the artist an opportunity to mature out of the glare of the spotlight. That seems to be the case with the Korean-American Jennifer Koh. Her latest recording for Cedille, featuring Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto, Martinu’s Second, and the Two Portraits of Bartók, demonstrates that her musical stature has arrived at a level that demands international attention.
I think it is only fair that I reveal some relationships here that might be perceived as causing a conflict of interest. I have known Jennifer Koh since she was a finalist in a young soloists’ competition at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (which I managed for 18 years) in 1988, and again in 1992 when, at the age of fifteen, she won another CSO competition. In addition, I am a member of the Board of Directors of Cedille Records – but there is no financial conflict in that, because Cedille is a non-profit corporation (to which, in fact, I contribute) dedicated to making classical music recordings of Chicago musicians and composers.
Jennifer Koh, now close to thirty years old, has always played the violin beautifully, and has always played with emotional involvement and communication. What has developed over the past four or five years is that her performances have less moment-to-moment dramatic emphasis, and a bigger overview of the whole. This is particularly impressive in Karol Szymanowski’s beautiful First Concerto on this disc (she is wonderfully accompanied throughout by the Grant Park Orchestra and its music director Carlos Kalmar). Szymanowski’s work can easily tempt the soloist to linger over or emphasize any given moment, with its decorous and florid solo writing. But Koh always has the whole in mind – and the result is a performance of more momentum, unity, and inevitability than virtually all others with which I am familiar. Added to that is the sensuous beauty of her tone, and the clarity and openness of Cedille’s recording, and this becomes the preferred version of this beautiful work that lives just on the fringes on the standard repertoire, with a number of performances and recordings, but far less familiarity than Mendelssohn or Tchaikovsky.
The rest of this disc (the catalogue number is CDR 90000 089) is equally impressive – particularly the rarely heard second concerto of Bohuslav Martinu. I am sure it has been recorded before, but this is my first encounter with it – and what a gem it is. It was commissioned by Mischa Elman, who premiered it in 1943 with the Boston Symphony, and why it is totally outside the repertory is something I simply don’t understand. It is tuneful, rhythmically vital, a bit jazzy, and memorable throughout.
In fact, it is worth noting that one of Jennifer Koh’s greatest musical attributes is her sense of adventure, her willingness to explore the far reaches of the violin repertoire, and her commitment to performing and recording unusual repertoire. (She is also involved with living composers, already generating commissions). On two previous Cedille releases she has compiled imaginative programs. One (CDR 90000 073) is called “Violin Fantasies” and has works by Schubert, Schumann, Schoenberg, and jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman! Her other record of solo Chaconnes (CDR 90000 060) features works of Bach, Reger, and Richard Barth.
In addition, Koh has made some extraordinarily valuable recordings on other labels. Menotti’s Violin Concerto on Chandos (CHAN 9979), a lovely and under-valued work, and Uto Klami’s Concerto on BIS CD-696, conducted by Osmo Vänska – a major discovery that we wouldn’t know were it not for Koh and Vänska. And finally there is a lovely and dramatic concerto (his Fourth) by Andrei Eshpai that Koh has recorded for Albany (TROY 286).
The point of this is that Jennifer Koh is one of the most intelligent and interesting young artists in the classical music world, and with every recording her stature seems to grow. When you hear this new Cedille recording of Szymanowski, Martinu, and Bartók you will find yourself drawn into the music in a way that is thoroughly gripping. It is her finest musical statement yet, and a recording very much worth having.