Cho & Kim Play “Indianapolis Commissions”

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THE INDIANAPOLIS COMMISSIONS, 1982-2014 / TOWER: String Force. DANIELPOUR: As Night Falls on Barjeantane. ROCHBERG: Rhapsody and Prayer. SHENG: A Night at the Chinese Opera. KIRCHNER: For Violin Solo. KOKKONEN: Improvvisazione per Violino e Pianoforte. LUTOSŁAWSKI: Subito. ROREM: Autumn Music. ZWILICH: Fantasy for Solo Violin / Jinjoo Cho, violinist; Hyun Soo Kim, pianist / Azica 71321

Korean violinist Jinjoo Cho, winner of the 2006 Montreal International Music Competition and the 2014 Indianapolis International Violin Competition, here makes her CD debut playing pieces commissioned by the latter contest between 1982 and 2014. As you will notice, six of the nine composers listed here are famous names, although only one of these (Witold Lutosławski) is a foreigner. I admit being unfamiliar with the work of George Rochberg, Leon Kirchner and Joonas Kokkonen prior to hearing this album.

The album gets off to a very strong start with Joan Tower’s dynamic, exciting piece for violin alone, String Force. Serrated figures played with rapid bowing dominate this work, but Tower’s fine sense of musical construction ensures that it is not just a showoff piece. Despite the many technical challenges, it is a well-developed piece, quite outstanding in fact. Rotating triplet figures also dominate as the piece goes on, but again these figures are well worked into the musical structure.

By contrast, Richard Danielpour’s As Night Falls on Barjeantane (Nocturne for Violin and Piano) is a quiet, lyrical work, emphasizing his lyrical proclivities but surprisingly spiky harmonically (for him) and with moments of strength and drama. The depth of feeling that Cho pours into this piece elevates it and gives it an emotional force rarely heard in recorded performances of Danielpour’s music (which I generally like quite a bit). There’s almost a Bartók-like feeling to this work, part of it, I’m sure, due to Cho’s emotional investment. (If she played this piece for any of her competitions, I can understand her walking away with first prize, for music like this shows much more of what she can do than any technical showcase ever could.) Pianist Hyun Soo Kim is a good accompanist, though lacking Cho’s emotional power.

Rochberg’s Rhapsody and Prayer is another lyrical piece, somewhat interesting but, to my ears, rather formulaic compared to the Danielpour piece. It emphasizes minor keys, crush harmonies and a lot of violinistic virtuosity, although Cho does her level best to invest it with emotion. By contrast, Bright Sheng’s A Night at the Chinese Opera is a melodically and tonally strange piece, mixing Eastern and Western musical forms in that composer’s own unique way. The violin part uses a lot of portamento slides, using the violin as a sort of ersatz ehru. The second half of the piece, however, leans more towards Western form and harmony, and is very energetic rhythmically. Pianist Kim is unexpectedly fiery in her accompaniment.

Kirchner’s For Violin Solo combines lyricism with technical feats, but does so in a musical and structurally sound manner that I found intriguing. It is, however, a somewhat episodic work that requires great concentration from the listener. By contrast, Kokkonen’s Improvvazione is the most tonal and structurally conventional work on this CD, although a fine lyric piece with interesting harmonic twists and turns. In the second half, the tempo quadruples and it becomes quite virtuosic. Yet it is Lutosławski’s Subito that strikes one as the most complex and forceful piece on the disc, a superb composition that goes through several complex permutations. This is an absolute masterpiece that should be studied by all modern-day composition pupils, and once again it brings out the best in Kim.

Ned Rorem’s Autumn Music is typical of this excellent composer’s output, lyrical but with modern harmonies. It challenges the violin technically but does so in a way that does not put too much of an emphasis on sheer virtuosity. Basically, the music evolves in a single long line, connecting the sparse single notes of the piano accompaniment almost like a game of Pac-Man in slow motion as the violin plays emotional, lyric lines above it. Again, the tempo increases in the second half to allow the pianist and violinist to show off their chops a bit.

We end our musical journey with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s superb Fantasy for Solo Violin, another work that crosses the boundaries between passionate lyricism and dramatic flourishes, yet does so in a way that ties all of the loose ends together in a well-organized musical edifice. There are hints of jazz violin at the 1:50 mark, and Cho plays the whole piece with remarkable élan and beautiful tone. The music vacillates back and forth in this manner, juxtaposing these various elements (including the jazz violin “feel”) throughout its six-minute duration.

It’s a wonderful conclusion to a spectacular first CD for this very gifted violinist. Well worth investigating.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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