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Violin Fantasies
Schubert: Fantasie in C for Violin and Piano, D. 934
Schumann: Fantasie in C for Violin and Piano, Op. 131
Schoenberg: Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment, Op. 47
Ornette Coleman: "Trinity"- Fantasy for Solo Violin 

Jennifer Koh, violin
Reiko Uchida, piano

Review By Joe Milicia
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Violin Fantasies

CD Label: Cedille CDR 90000 073

 

  Chicago-born-and-raised Jennifer Koh won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1994 and has performed with the usual major orchestras, but seems to have garnered wide public recognition only recently, notably as a solo recitalist. She was featured on a National Public Radio segment after the release of the present CD, and was highly praised for her April 2005 recital in New York, accompanied as on the CD by Reiko Uchida. Violin Fantasies is the second of Koh's CDs that might be called genre studies. The first featured solo chaconnes: Bach's, of course actually, the entire Partita No. 2, of which the Chaconne is the finale, almost as long as the first four movements combined plus one by the obscure Richard Barth (a friend of Brahms) and concluding with Max Reger. The newer CD features a yet more varied program, ranging from the familiar (the Schubert) to the virtually unknown (a short piece by Ornette Coleman).

For many, the highlight of Violin Fantasies will be Koh and Uchida's performance of the Schubert Fantasie, a gorgeous 25-minute outpouring of melody comparable to such other Schubert lyrical masterpieces as "The Shepherd on the Rock" and the Arpeggione Sonata but more complex or intuitive in structure. Koh's sound is pure and elegant without being steely; warm without being lush. The melodies seem to play themselves, as they should, without any over-indulgence on the part of the violinist or the admirable pianist, a full partner in this enterprise. Koh's performance is somewhat comparable in style to Joseph Szigeti's on an early Columbia LP, though Josef Lhevinne's pianism there is even more rhythmically propulsive than Uchida's.

The Schumann Fantasie was originally a work for violin with orchestra, though the composer himself created the violin/piano version. I miss the color contrasts of some woodwind passages in the orchestral version, but Uchida takes satisfying command in the introductory section before the violin's entrance and during "tutti" passages throughout. The performers seem fully committed to this piece, but after repeated hearings I can't help but think that it is not among Schumann's more inspired works. The booklet notes mention that "gentle melodiousness was not his goal here" (indeed) but rather a "stunning display of string brilliance" still, plenty of violin display pieces have memorable tunes and virtuosity. Perhaps the problem (if only for me) is that the Schumann comes right after the incomparably melodic Schubert Fantasie; or maybe it's the fact that the main lebhaft/vivace section actually has more of a moderato feel (like a number of other, more tuneful Schumann chamber fantasy-piece movements), with the accompaniment seeming to plod along to the soloist's filigree.

An utterly different fantasy follows, Arnold Schoenberg's 9-minute 1949 work. Though Schoenberg had returned to a kind of tonality in certain works of the 1940s still within the context of his 12-tone system the Violin Phantasy is in his thornier, more expressionistic style. It seems like an impassioned free rhapsody for solo violin, punctuated by echoing afterbeats from the piano. Koh and Uschida have the requisite crackling energy for an exciting performance.

Each work in this recital is not only more modern but shorter, finishing with a 6-minute 1987 work for unaccompanied violin by Ornette Coleman. Though most famous as a jazz saxophonist with a challenging style (some finding it as challenging as Schoenberg's music is in the classical-music world), Coleman did play the violin and wrote music for strings. A mild and gentle work, "Trinity" has no inflections that mark it as jazzy-sounding, even with a final section the notes tell us is marked "Swing." I have to say I could not hear distinct sections, but rather had a sense of continuing improvisation, with ghosts of Coplandesque American tunes early on and perhaps Moroccan hints later.

There might be few listeners to this CD who respond with equal pleasure to all four pieces, but Koh and Uchida are to be congratulated for providing such a stimulating variety of works under the "fantasy banner." The sound and booklet notes are up to Cedille's usual high standards. Might one hope for a "Rhapsody" CD next?

 

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