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Jennifer Koh Plays Tchaikovsky

07-05-2022 | By Stephen Francis Vasta | Issue 122

"Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra. "Jennifer Koh, violin; Odense Symphony/Alexander Vedernikov. Cedille CDR 90000 166.  TT: 74.20. Sérénade mélancolique, Op. 26.  Valse-Scherzo, Op. 34. Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35. Souvenir d'un lieu cher, Op. 42 (orch. Glazunov). Downloads/Streaming: amazon.com; cedillerecords.com; deezer.com; music.apple.com; pandora.app.link; qobuz.com; tidal.com

I'm surprised we didn't see more of this sort of compendium during the rise of "hard" CDs. The Concerto has always been readily available, but the various shorter pieces can get lost in the shuffle: you'd stumble over one or two of them, here and there, in mixed programs. (Nathan Milstein recorded one such, for a very fine Angel LP, long ago.)  It's handy to have all the pieces in one place like this—and, of course, you needn't listen to the program straight through, unless you want to!

It took me a bit, however, to warm up to Jennifer Koh. Her lean, focused sound lacks the sort of full-bodied warmth to which I immediately respond. The good bits, like the real waltz feel she brings to the Valse-Scherzo, are vitiated by others, here the aimless, seemingly endless cadenza. Fortunately, her intonation is impeccable, and, while she favors leisurely tempi, she fills out the spacious lines with lovely, poised tone and a sure sense of shape. By Souvenir d'un lieu cher—where the Méditation's final note soars with a beautiful, vibrant purity—she'd won me over.

That three-movement suite, in fact, is the best thing on the program. The violin sings the Méditation introspectively; after a faster, more buoyant "B" section, Koh and the principal clarinet weave expressive rubatos in a somber recapitulation. A central Scherzo, this now dominated by triplets, is lively and grim, while the back-and-forth between orchestra and soloist in the bittersweet Mélodie is graceful and transparent.

Elsewhere, unfortunately, Alexander Vedernikov is musical and assured when he can take the lead, but seems not the most comfortable accompanist. In the concerto's first movement, I occasionally felt the orchestra, not lagging behind the soloist, exactly, but "sticking" as they kept up with her (and she wasn't exactly speeding); and a few of Koh's labored sectional ritards suggest that she was making sure the conductor was ready to catch her. On the other hand, she moves impulsively into that movement's two big tuttis, almost catching orchestra and maestro off guard—the fanfares actually rush a bit each time before settling down. Not until the vigorous Finale does Vedernikov work up the needed head of steam.

The sound is basically fine. Bass pizzicatos are boomy, and some counterpoints—including that clarinet—are a bit recessed. Tutti cadences reveal a long but otherwise unobtrusive ambience. The rear endpaper—no remarks, now—is good about including the acute accents in the Sérénade, but omits them where they're needed in the Souvenir movements.