Monday, December 24, 2018

Protean pro-modern violinist Jennifer Koh displays her affinity for Kaija Saariaho

The close relationship of American violinist Jennifer Koh and Finnish
Jennifer Koh displays her affinity for a contemporary Finnish composer.
composer Kaija Saariaho is in evidence with the title's mathematical precision in "Saariaho X Koh" (Cedille Records). 

The multiplier effect (interpret "X" as "times") rules, as Koh continues on this release to display her receptivity to repertoire off the beaten track.  Saariaho's closeness to visual phenomena saturates her compositions. 

The longest of the chamber-music works on this recording is "Light and Matter," for which Koh is joined by Anssi Karttunen, cello, and Nicolas Hedges, piano. The rumbling start doesn't signal menace so much as potential, and the work opens up toward the individuality of each instrument. Colors and shadows, briefly isolated, imprint themselves as essential. The music brings to mind Shelley's "life, like a dome of many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of eternity," where "stains" leans less toward the negative meaning in favor of the variegated hues that bring fullness to life.

"Cloud Trio" over the course of its four movements has a sweetness that
Kaija Saariaho's compositions are inspired by natural phenomena.
adheres to Saariaho's music, but never congeals it. With violist Hsin-Yun Huang and cellist Wilhelmina Smith joining Koh, the performance pushes the score through the occasional harshness of the third movement to the calm of the "Tranquillo" finale, in which short solos are like confirming check-ins from each instrument.

I find most disturbing the disc's longest work, "Graal Theatre," in which Koh is accompanied by  the 20/21 Ensemble of the Curtis institute. The two-movement piece is weighed down by the outsized, display-oriented accompaniment in the first movement. It's like a trap for the soloist, who becomes a caged curiosity, reminding me of Kafka's "hunger artist" (but in this case, both overfed and undernourished).  

The second movement allows the soloist more freedom, opening with a cadenza that presages good things. There's more of a feeling of partnership and a translucent quality to the orchestration. The composer writes that she at first imagined the violinist as the main character in a play, then left that image behind as she wrote. I'm afraid the first movement still suffers from a stifling kind of overdramatization. The finale is more revelatory of Saariaho's truer genius, and links this flawed concerto more firmly to the chamber pieces that make the rest of the disc worth hearing.

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