This disc brings together three violin works from Central Europe, none of them part of the standard repertoire in the West, though not unknown to collectors. It's an attractive combination, and typical of the thoughtful programming of Cedille and Jennifer Koh, whose two previous releases for the label were of chaconnes (solo) and fantasies (mostly violin-piano). Fans of the Chicago-born, Tchaikovsky-Competition-winning Koh will certainly want to acquire the CD, though those wanting to make greater acquaintance with the other violin concertos by any one of these composers (each wrote two) might best start elsewhere.
Karol Szymanowski's music has occasionally been championed in the West — his fellow Pole Artur Rubenstein played it, and Simon Rattle recorded several important works in his Birmingham days — but it's a bit puzzling that such a gorgeous work as the 1916 First Violin Concerto is not played more often. Cedille's booklet essay suggests that the piece might almost be a violin concerto as written by Gustav Mahler, but I must say that I can't hear anything remotely Mahleresque in it: it seems more to display the feverish rapture of a Scriabin tone poem with the glittering orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov or early Stravinsky (including his 1914 The Nightingale, though I'm not aware that Szymanowski was acquainted with the latter's music at the time). Both Koh and the Grant Park Symphony under Carlos Kalmar offer sumptuous sonorities as they traverse this one-movement, 25-minute work. Still, I would be more enthusiastic if I hadn't just heard a more intensely rhapsodic and compelling performance featuring Wanda Wilkomirska, with Witold Rowicki leading the Warsaw Philharmonic. (I caught it on MusicChoice cable, but the 1961 recording has been available on at least three labels — Heliodor, Polske Nagrania, and Lys, the latter offering a 3-CD set of Rowicki doing Szymanowksi with his splendid orchestra, with Wilkomirksa playing the Second Concerto as well.)
Bohuslav Martinu's Second Violin Concerto (an early First Concerto was never performed during the composer's lifetime) was commissioned by Misha Elman and premiered with Koussevitsky and the BSO in 1943, during the Czech composer's years of exile in America. It's a more traditional 3-movement work, and far from a light-hearted display piece. Although the concluding Poco Allegro offers some of the brilliance one expects in a concerto finale; the first two movements are predominantly turbulent, brooding or wistful. Again, Koh plays richly and sensitively, with strong support from Kalmar and his orchestra, but again, when I listened to a recording by artists of the composer's homeland, I felt there was something missing in the new CD. Josef Suk, Vaclav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic perform the piece more incisively: everything seems more forward-thrusting (but not rushed), as if they know exactly where they are going (no doubt because they have many more years of acquaintance with the piece, as must Wilkomirska and Rowicki with the Polish concerto). The 1973 Suk performance, which I heard on a Supraphon LP — with quite decent sound, by the way — has been reissued by that company on CD.
Rounding out the disc is a curiosity from Bela Bartok, his early Two Portraits (not to be confused with his Two Pictures of the same era). Bartok was madly in love with a young violinist, for whom he wrote a concerto in two movements in 1907-08. She rejected his proposal of marriage but in the same letter requested the manuscript of the concerto, which the composer gave her--though as it turned out, she never performed or published the work. In bitterness Bartok did publish the first movement of the concerto, a lovely 10-minute late-Romantic Andante sostenuto, now labeling it "Idealistic," and pairing it with a Presto ("Distorted"), a 2-minute nose-thumbing of the Andante's main theme. Shades of Berlioz' "Witches' Sabbeth," mocking his beloved's tune in the Symfonie fantastique! (Liszt did something similar in the "Mephistopheles" movement of his Faust Symphony, which makes a joke of the noble Faust motif heard earlier.) I like a Gramophone reviewer's description of the second Portrait: "a bitchy transformation of the first Portrait's dreamy love theme."
Since the second Portrait pointedly does not have a violin solo, it shows admirable lack of ego on Koh's part to have the Two Portraits end this CD program. Her performance of the first movement, which begins with a 4-note theme in the soloist's lower register and slowly builds toward an impassioned orchestral climax, is quite ravishing — every bit the equal of Midori's performance with Zubin Mehta and the Berlin Philharmonic, part of a recording of the whole concerto, paired with Bartok's great Second Violin Concerto. One could quibble that the entire First Concerto could have fit on the new CD, but Kalmar and the Grant Park players acquit themselves with brilliance in the second Portrait, and it's refreshing to hear this musical rarity.