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Jennifer Koh plays violin concertos and violin/piano fantasies

Szymanowski Violin Concerto No 1 Op 35
Martinu Violin Concerto No 2 H293
Bartok 2 portraits Op 5

Grant Park Orchestra / Carlos Kalmar

Cedille CDR 90000 089

This is the most successful of the three Koh/Cedille discs I have reviewed. Koh's excellent technique is especially suited to the Martinu, with its typically fiendish rhythmical complications. Koh is genuinely exciting in the virtuosic first movement passages, and the dance-movement finale. As with the best Martinu playing, the chronic syncopation is effortlessly delivered, remaining only as a subliminal, unsettling pulse.

Equally, in the Szymanowski, Koh is able to dwell on the long melodic lines; she is intuitively inside the composer's distinctive juxtaposition of late Romantic nostalgia and modernist experiment. As with the slow movement of the Martinu, Koh's enjoyment of singing melodies and her unaffected engagement with the music greatly enhance the interpretations.

The Bartok is a curious animal; a bitter chronicle of his affair with the violinist Steffi Geyer; it reproduces the first movement of the first violin concerto, and then deconstructs it in a short movement where the solo instrument is silent. This is an enjoyable emotional excursion for the Grant Park orchestra.

If Koh's interpretations were a painting, they might be described as a symbolist work, beautiful rather than sublime, allusive and bordering on the diffident even when striving to be heroic. At its best, this has something of the same integrity as the much praised Julia Fischer Brahms recording. At other times, we can feel a lack of direction, we wish that music written for protagonist and supporters were actually played with more ego.

The recording is sumptuous; some would prefer it drier. Recording balance is good between soloist and orchestra and will please MP's editor's preference for naturalness. Recommended.

Ying Chang

Violin/Piano fantasies

Schubert in C D934

Schumann in C Op131

Schoenberg Op87

Ornette Coleman "Trinity" (solo violin)

Jennifer Koh (violin), Reiko Uchida (piano)

Cedille CDR 90000 073

Jennifer Koh is a prolific recording artist who seems able to turn her hand to every corner of the repertoire. Or can she? This disc, accompanied by a booklet essay that discusses the significance of the fantasy as a central tenet of romantic art, explores some forgotten corners of the violin repertoire.

Schubert's Fantasy is neglected largely because its great difficulty does not come with commensurate musical rewards. It is a work showing how uncomfortable Schubert was with the notion of display for its own sake. In this regard, it resembles the Trockne Blumen flute variations, and to a lesser extent (since the latter has its share of admirers) the Wanderer Fantasy.

It is much to Koh's credit that she plays D934 effortlessly; Reiko Uchida likewise gives staunch support. But neither truly puts their personal stamp on the work. The variations on Sei mir gegruesst in particular, with the thematic reprise later in the work, could be delivered with more sense of differentiation.

When the Schumann arrives, written in the same key (marginally less unfamiliar in an orchestral version) it feels like more of the same. The work meanders from lack of a sure-footed guide. In the Schoenberg, the piano has relatively little to do except (for example in Glen Gould's view), to disrupt the flow of the violin. Again I looked for more wit, more quirkiness, not just an endless stream of beautiful sound. If anything, the unfamiliar Coleman, with its eclectic blend of styles from Renaissance of jazz, is the most successful work on this disc.


Koh's playing is extremely competent, technically adept, and sweet-toned, but it lacks a truly distinctive character. In this repertoire, a stronger identity would give a greater sense of structure to some distinctly peculiar works.

Warm, present recording, but recommended for Koh fans only.

Ying Chang