Rhapsodic Musings: 21st century works for solo violin

Jennifer Koh, violin (Cedille CDR90000113)

28 January 2010 3 stars

KohThe young violinist Jennifer Koh has been garnering praise Stateside for a high standard of technical punch and a forward-looking ethos. She is now also gathering momentum on an international level, having made a well-received appearance at last year's Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, performing a concerto by Augusta Read Thomas (a piece by whom also features here).

This new CD release looks to consolidate that progress by offering a fresh contribution to the contemporary violin repertoire of the still-young century. Its programme, Koh writes, came about through her 'search for a sense of meaning in the days, months and years following the events of September 11, 2001.' It is a suitably, if surprisingly, dark and subdued collection, whose works go together to create something meaningful and relevant, both as a document of the post-9/11 climate and as a document of recent music for the violin. While you might expect an up-and-coming violinist to keep things cheerful and easy on the ears, Koh takes the more difficult and ultimately more rewarding route of creating something showing a depth of thought.

The opening work, Esa-Pekka Salonen's Lachen Verlernt, sees a lonely string singing to itself, rendered in the perfect tone and clear engineering characteristic of the album. The title of the work comes from one of the poems set by Schoenberg in Pierrot Lunaire, about the speaker having lost the ability to laugh. Salonen's lyrical approach to composition suits Koh well, and vice versa. The overall mood of the work has something of the lamenting quality of the opening movement of Shostakovitch's famous violin concerto a plaint hung in darkness for the voiceless victims of terrorism. Although to be filed under 'contemporary', it is unlikely to offend much anyone's ears, its phrasing and sweep speaking a traditional enough language. As the lines of the chaconne-type form spin towards a climax the feeling becomes rawer, and the well-made piece shows that Salonen, whether you like his music or find it bland (as I do), can't be faulted as a craftsman

Carter's Four Lauds ushers in a more finely wrought abstraction and more tentative textures, presenting something more affronting to the ear. As the title suggests, the work is in four parts, each of which pay tribute to a different person of Carter's acquaintance. Again here the violin is mouthpiece for a salutary gesture, a vicarious voice for human emotion, reaching out to where the latter can't go. The second piece, Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi, was Carter's first mature work for solo violin (dating from 1984), and sees a flowing line interrupted by other more shadowy and querulous gestures. In the first, dedicated to Aaron Copland, some pizzicato and plucking on the strings brings to mind the ukulele of the elder composer's Ukulele Serenade. Overall a fine array of technical challenges are met and trumped.

Augusta Read Thomas's Pulsar follows. Things again here are uneasy, anguished, the tonality warped rather than extended; whilst lyrical, it is angular in its extremes. The turning of phrases, one upon the next, is like the revolution implied in the title, swirling round in a gradual dimming and a ritardando. Her intonation unerring in some big leaps, Koh's own personality comes through clearly here as elsewhere in the interpretations. 'Pensive' is a word mentioned by Paul Griffiths in the sleevenotes, and a word that evokes well the depth to the performances on show. There is thought throughout the music, in each phrase and shifting dynamic and articulation.

John Zorn is a composer who is perhaps better known to many as the leader of the jazz-punk-thrash-country-and-everything-else band Naked City, which featured the stylings of Mike Patton from Faith No More and Yamatsuka Eye among others, and with whom Zorn played saxophone. Goetia, with which the disc closes, is the longest work on it, evocative of necromancy and the rigour of the black magician in observing the rites of his art in the conjuration of demons and the unworldly. As Griffith points out, this chimes well with the figure of the devilishly talented violin virtuoso la Paganini. The work is again a demanding one, its compositional logic utilising a neo-serial process wherein the same sequence of 277 pitches is played in several different manners in successive movements.

The record ends under the same umbral shade as it had began, and after listening to the record the title makes perfect sense a voice on its own throwing out musings to the incessant reflective dark. It is an ambitious collection, not falling back on any over-rehearsed retrospection but pushing forward into the dark with what is to hand at present. With the focus here being exclusively on music by American or American-based composers, maybe for her next recording project Koh will take on works by some European composers.

By Liam Cagney


Related articles:

Concert Review: Garth Knox performs works for solo viola in Dublin
CD Review: Gloria Cheng performs piano works by Salonen, Stucky and Lutoslawski (Telarc CD-80712)
Concert Review: Philip Glass's Violin Concerto at the Proms 2009