North America Reviews
By Lawrence A Johnson
Jennifer Koh has been quietly carving out the fiddle path less taken in her Cedille recordings, with a deftly judged mix of the familiar and offbeat. With her latest release, Koh serves up a bracing American programme, which makes a worthy scaffolding for the musician's blend of lyric introspection and dynamic sizzle.
Jennifer Higdon wrote String Poetic for Koh in 2006. Higdon was inspired by what she called Koh's "virtuosic abilities and soulfuI playing" to compose a "small storybook" of different moods set in five movements. All the odd-numbered sections call for muted piano strings, as with the opening "Jagged Climb", in which fast virtuoso music rapidly alternates bowed violin passages with edgy sul ponticello harmonics. "Noctume" is an introspective, sadly ruminative movement, where the melody first appears in the piano before passing to the violin, played very sensitively by Koh. "Blue Hills of Mist" begins with an extended introduction of irregular plucked piano strings and segues into a pensive dialogue between the two instruments, which grows in intensity though an atmosphere of thoughtful contemplation prevails."Maze Mechanical" is a minimalist-inspired scherzo of repeated figures, and the finale, "Climb Jagged", returns to the opening movement's unbridled bravura. Higdon's String Poetic is cast in the composer's brand of smartly contrasted approachability, and receives sensitive and exhilarating advocacy by dedicatee Koh and pianist Reiko Uchida.
Carl Ruggles left no solo music for his own instrument, so it's understandable that colleague John Kirkpatrick would want to create one from various uncompleted sketches. Freely arranged from Ruggles fragments, Mood is heavily conjectural, but it makes an atmospheric enough miniature with Koh conveying the searching, restless lyricism.
Lou Harrison's Grand Duo is a late work from
1988, drawing on dance inspiration in its five
movements, as well as l8th-century models. The
opening Prelude offers a see-sawing violin
melody against eighth-note patterns in the piano
with a central cadenza for the violinist before a return to the ostinato-led
opening. "Stampede" is less aggressive than its title suggests, a good
natured western fiddle tune that grows increasingly brilliant with rapid
figures and double-stopping against piano ostinati and octave
clusters. The central "Round" fluctuates uneasily
between D major and B minor, with polytonal
writing that builds to a surprisingly emotional
climax. The reflective, rather lugubrious "Air", manages to have the violin
explore its entire
range, though here Koh's playing sounds a bit
offhand and the music could stand more
concentration. The aggressively cheerful Polka makes a spirited finale without quite dispelling the pervasive gloom of the preceding movement.
John Adams's Road Movies is on its way to becoming one of the composer's most popular works on disc and in performance. In the opening "Relaxed Groove", Koh takes a more gentle, low-key take than many rivals — notably the fiery Leila Josefowicz (Nonesuch, 8/04) — and one more apt for the movement title. The central "Meditative" captures the sense of relaxed intimacy with a particularly evocative coda. Again rather than brash intensity, Koh's take on the closing "40% Swing" is more genial than blisteringly virtuoso, which proves equally effective in a different way.
A discerning and individual programme of 20th- and 2lst-century violin Americana, given energetic, communicative performances by Jennifer Koh and Reiko Uchida. Don't be surprised if Higdon's String Poetic follows Adams's Road Movies into the regular concert repertoire.