A Range of Sounds, From Brash to Beautiful

06.08.08
Jennifer Koh
The New York Times

‘STRING POETIC'

Jennifer Koh, violinist; Reiko Uchida, pianist. Cedille CDR 90000 103; CD.

JENNIFER HIGDON'S "String Poetic," written for the violinist Jennifer Koh, makes imaginative use of both violin and piano strings. On a new disc of the same name, Ms. Koh and the pianist Reiko Uchida, superb frequent collaborators, vividly explore the varied moods of that work and others by American composers.

"Jagged Climb," the brash, virtuosic first movement of "String Poetic," evokes a climber with a carnivorous beast in hot pursuit. The adrenaline rush created by the scurrying figures in the violin is heightened by the rhythmic urgency and strange texture of the stopped piano strings (an eerie sound created when the pianist damps the strings inside the instrument with one hand and plays the keys with the other).

A soulful nocturne brings an end to the chase. The stopped strings in the opening of the introspective "Blue Hills of Mist" create a mystical, gauzy texture, and the violin soars over it. "Maze Mechanical" is a harmonically vibrant homage to Minimalism. The finale returns to the opening theme with another frenzied dash.

The disc also includes "Mood" (1918) by the seldom-performed Carl Ruggles. This searching, dissonant work - posthumously assembled from sketches by the pianist John Kirkpatrick after Ruggles's death in 1971 - traverses mysterious film noir soundscapes.

The five movements of Lou Harrison's "Grand Duo" (1988) are inspired by dance forms and 18th-century models. In the Prelude rhapsodic violin melodies soar over eighth-note patterns in the piano. "Stampede" turns the medieval estampie into an American hoedown with raucous octave piano clusters.

The disc concludes with John Adams's enigmatic "Road Movies" (1995), which conjures up the dramatic landscapes of a road trip out West. "Forty Percent Swing," the colorful third movement with hints of bluegrass, features agitated fiddling and is "for four-wheel drives only," in Mr. Adams's words.