Jonah Kim Plays Kodály, Abel & Grieg

cover DE 3585

what a performanceKODÁLY: Solo Cello Sonata. ABEL: Approaching Autumn. GRIEG: Cello Sonata / Jonah Kim, cel; Robert Koenig, pno / Delos DE 3585

Korean-born cellist Jonah Kim, who met Janos Starker as a seven-year-old and apparently became a pen pal with the elder cellist, presents here three diverse cello sonatas by composers of different eras and nationalities.

And boy, does Kim tear into the Kodály Solo Sonata! This performance is every bit as good as that of Hungarian cellist István Várdai on Brilliant Classics, a performance I never thought I would hear equaled in my lifetime. Kim combines a gorgeous sound and elegance of phrasing, including quite passionate playing in the slower sections, with just the right amount of power in the more dramatic moments. Since he is now an American citizen, I would rate Kim as one of the very finest American cellists along with Zuill Bailey and Matt Haimovitz, and that’s some elite company to be in.

Despite its comforting-sounding title, Mark Abel’s Approaching Autumn is a surprisingly dramatic piece, yet despite the somewhat (but not overtly) modern and shifting harmonic base still containing a great deal of lyricism. I was rather surprised to learn that most of Abel’s output has been songs, and that he has only recently turned to writing chamber music; this is the work of an assured composer who knows what he is about. Not a single phrase or note in this fairly compact (14:51) piece is superfluous, repetitive, or just thrown in to impress the listener. Abel set up his themes, develops them in musically sound yet constantly surprising ways, and ends up with a work that I consider a modern American masterpiece. This should be played by many more cellists, and somehow I think it will because despite its shifting harmonic base nothing here is off-putting to the average listener yet it still appeals to those of us with more advanced tastes.

Yet, if I were forced to select just one performance from this set to illustrate just how great a cellist Kim is, it would be the Grieg Cello Sonata. Though a pretty good piece, clearly one of the composer’s most interesting, Kim adds to that interest by performing it with the same combination of intensity and lyricism he brought to the Kodály, thus reminding us that Norway is really not all that far from being an Eastern European country. Were you completely unfamiliar with this piece, you’d swear from the intensity of his performance that it was written by a Czech of a Hungarian composer. Just listen to the way Kim digs into this score; he brings out things that you possibly never realized were in it.

Nor is pianist Robert Koenig a slouch as his accompanist; he does a fine job of matching Kim’s emotional mood swings; yet even so, it is clearly the cellist who dominates these performances. In other words, I could easily imagine this being an even more intense recording with a world class accompanist such as Elisaveta Blumina or Michael Korstick, but Koenig does an excellent job and there is really nothing to complain of.

I don’t know if this is Kim’s first recording, but if it is it’s a hell of a coming-out party. Keep this young man’s name in mind for future releases; he has that indefinable “it.”

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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