By Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition
June 2006
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A fervent reading of the Szymanowski concerto

Recorded at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance on two consecutive years in July (2004-05), these modernist works display the suave talent of Jennifer Koh, a recipient of the special prizes at the 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. She plays a 1727 Stradivarius once owned by Arthur Grumiaux. Her fervent reading of the First Szymanowski Concerto is bound to make listeners pay more attention to her discography. Set in three unbroken movements, a large rondo, the piece has a dreamy ethos, an orchestra augmented by piano and harps, and an extensively bravura solo part. I was originally impressed with its ardent romantic feeling when I heard it with Henryk Szeryng in Atlanta with Robert Shaw. The last movement, expressly written for Paul Kochanski, is marked Cadenza, an assemblage of runs, chords, and octaves that caps the hot-house emotions that permeate this intensely subjective work.

The Violin Concerto of Martinu (1943) has suffered a benign neglect since its 1 January 1944 Boston debut with Mischa Elman and Serge Koussevitzky. A combination of tunefulness, dissonance, and rhythmic ingenuity marks this music, as it does the composer‚s general canon. The uneasy syncopes pervade the first movement, making for an athletic if edgy experience that lead to some pulverizing chords in the battery. A softly lyrical impulse tries to assuage the martial sensibility; more than once the writing had me recall the Nielsen Concerto. A bucolic Andante Moderato follows, daintily folkish. Its plain-spoken directness of expression could almost be a gavotte in English or Irish colors. The last pages contain more audacious harmonies and a brief, accompanied cadenza. The sensuous patina between Koh and the Grant Park Orchestra sells this disc, even if their Szymanowski were not already remarkable. The Poco Allegro is a frenetic dance that wants to become a march, but the violin holds sway by using octaves, double-stops, and bravura filigree to keep the dance going, declamations by the orchestra strings and brass notwithstanding. A plaintive cadenza once more, and then a return to the quirky dance which concludes this eclectic concerto.

Bartok's Two Portraits, Op. 5 (1908-1911) celebrate the composer's anguished love-affair with violinist Steffi Geyer, and the first portrait became the Violin Concerto No. 1, published posthumously. Sinuous, chromatic, and melancholy, the piece conveys a delicate charm that becomes more urgent. Koh's tone is particularly poignant here, a real singer of a love song. I recall the Rudolf Schulz and Ferenc Fricsay version with equal affection; but this is a masterly rendition. The last movement belongs to the versatile orchestra, a strident, dissonant, nervous dance. For Uruguayan conductor Kalmar (present conductor of the Oregon Symphony), this is a milestone album.