Those who have followed the career of violinist Jennifer Koh are likely to know her for the breadth of her repertoire and the deep thinking that goes into every corner of the music she plays. I first encountered her in a solo recital. I have also listened to her perform with a piano accompanist and as part of a piano trio; but, regrettably, I have not experienced her playing with an orchestra. That is been compensated in part by my following the recordings she has released.
The most recent of those recordings will become available this Friday. It is her latest project with Cedille Records; and it is her first-ever recording of the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. However, she has made up for this delay with a single CD that presents all of the music Tchaikovsky wrote for violin and orchestra. As is usually the case, this album is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com.
One can assume from the duration of the recording that Tchaikovsky did not write very much for violin and orchestra. He is best known for his Opus 35 concerto in D major. This was preceded, chronologically, by two shorter pieces, the Opus 26 “Sérénade mélancolique” in B-flat minor and the Opus 34 “Valse-Scherzo” in C major. These are most likely to heard at orchestral concerts as an encore after the soloist has played the Opus 35 concerto. Finally, there is the Opus 42 suite Souvenir d’un lieu cher (memory of a beloved place), whose final “Meditation” movement was originally intended as the slow movement in the Opus 35 concerto. Opus 42 was published for violin and piano; but, due to its history, the “Meditation” had an orchestral version. The other two movements (“Scherzo” and “Melody”) were subsequently orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov.
It goes without saying that it would take an extraordinarily thorough database to account for how many violinists have made how many recordings of Opus 35. Nevertheless, an expressive performance of a piece of music is a matter of what the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer called “historical interpretation” in his major book Truth and Method. For Gadamer the scope of that adjective “historical” extended far beyond an understanding of how music was being made in the latter half of the nineteenth century or, for that matter, any knowledge of how Tchaikovsky saw himself as a music-maker in that context. It also takes in the full expanse of how other music-makers have interpreted the concerto between the time it was first performed and the immediate present.
While it is unclear how much of this expanse was part of Koh’s consciousness, there is still a clear sense on this recording that, for all of that diversity of approaches to performing Opus 35, Koh has found an approach of her own. It comes through on this recording as a well-conceived balance between a firm command of the many technical challenges that Tchaikovsky imposed on the soloist and the need to frame that command through an appropriately expressive rhetoric. In other words she has approached this concerto with the same pedagogical foundations that were so significant to Johann Sebastian Bach, and the result amounts to what can almost be taken as a penetrating dialogue between Tchaikovsky and Koh taking place over some transcendental communications channel. Once one grasps that idea of an underlying dialogue, the expressiveness of Koh’s approach to the other selections on this recording reveals itself just as readily.
One reason the dialogue is so clear is because it is enabled by another equally significant dialogue. The ensemble for this recording is the Odense Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Vedernikov. Vedernikov was Koh’s conductor in 1992 when, at the age of fifteen, she competed in the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in Moscow. Two years later she would win the top prize in the International Tchaikovsky Competition playing both Opus 35 and Johannes Brahms’ Opus 77 concerto in D major, as well as a special prize for the best performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto. In other words she encountered Vedernikov when she was “on the rise;” and, for this recording, she returned to him with all of the “historical knowledge” she had accumulated since then. The result was a partnership distinguished for not only its insights but also the clarity with which those insights were expressed.
The result is that a very solid case has been made by this recording for the proposition that the immediate present always brings its own history to interpreting music of the past, meaning that, however familiar that past may be, it can always benefit from new insights.