By David Hurwitz
June 28, 2006
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Cedille really does set an industry standard for finding intelligent and desirable ways to showcase its artists, and this release is a case in point. After all, there is no shortage of fine young female violinists, but all of Jennifer Koh's releases for the label have been noteworthy (as have Rachel Barton Pine's, for that matter). It's interesting to compare this issue to the recent DG release featuring Nicola Benedetti with the London Symphony (type Q9930 in Search Reviews). Both contain Szymanowski's lush and lovely First Violin Concerto, but whereas Benedetti offers a grab-bag of miscellaneous and musically unrelated encores, Koh offers three works for violin and orchestra by three very different Eastern European composers, none of them over-exposed and all of them distinctive. In other words, the complete program is as coherent and well thought-out as the performances are outstanding.

In fact, this performance of the Szymanowski is audibly superior to Benedetti's, which was very good, regarding both Koh's security and fullness of tone in her upper register as well as the voluptuous accompaniments provided by Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra. You may feel that Chicago's "other" orchestra can't match the LSO, yet not only does the ensemble play extremely well, but Kalmar also is a far more sensitive and imaginative conductor than DG's Daniel Harding. And if you don't yet know this concerto, you're missing quite a treat. It has to be the sexiest, most exotic piece of its kind in the entire repertoire, and this performance really revels in the music's enchanted atmosphere.

Martinu's Second Violin Concerto also is a masterpiece, dating from the same period as that of the First Symphony (early 1940s). It's amazing that it has yet to find a niche in the repertoire, given its dramatic first movement, the folk-like tenderness of its andante (with a main tune that sounds like the pop song "Windy"), and its brilliant, rustic finale. I suppose the music's syncopated rhythms might give some prospective soloists pause, and the only other recording worth mentioning is Joseph Suk's on Supraphon. That makes this newcomer especially welcome, and Koh has no problems at all either with Martinu's tricky rhythms or his gentle lyricism. Hopefully this recording will win the piece many new friends.

The program concludes with Bartók's Two Portraits, and here I really have to applaud Koh and Kalmar for their repertoire selection. As you may know, the first "ideal" movement of the Two Portraits is the same as that of the composer's First Violin Concerto, while the second "distorted" portrait is a brief scherzo based on the same material. The original concerto's finale was discarded and only resurrected after the composer's death. It's not one of Bartók's more effective or appealing inspirations, and so the Two Portraits is not only the finer work altogether, it also provides a splendidly bright and exciting finish to the entire program. Koh deserves full credit for agreeing to sit out the finale, which is for orchestra only, in favor of higher musical values. And that, in a nutshell, is what this entire program offers, captured in state-of-the-art, warmly tactile, ideally balanced live sonics.