String Poetic -- American Works: A 21st Century Perspective is the fifth album violinist Jennifer Koh has made for Çedille Records; here pianist Reiko Uchida, who is a member of Columbia University's Moebius Ensemble, joins Koh in a recital of four works. A highly interesting program puts a challenge to received notions as to what shakes out in terms of twentieth century literature now that the border to the twenty first has been crossed. It combines the music of historic American "ultra-modernists" -- composers marginalized during a period of serial dominance over the academies -- with two darlings of postmodernism: John Adams and Jennifer Higdon. It is perhaps not surprising, but certainly musically satisfying, that some points of similarity appear along the way.
Higdon's prominence as a composer is certainly a development within the twenty first century rather than the twentieth. Although Higdon made some productive strides in the 1990s, the orchestral works City Scape and her Concerto for Orchestra, which helped cement Higdon's public reputation, both premiered in 2002. The title work, String Poetic (2006), reflects the influence of Henry Cowell, invoked both in the string piano parts associated with his experimental piano music and the folksy, open modality of his so-called conservative later period, for lack of a better word. The rest of it, however, is all Higdon, and is Higdon at her most imaginative, creative, and intuitive; rhythms sparkle, fast tempi are breathless, and unusual effects used in both instruments seem to seamlessly fit into her textures, leaving no aftertaste whatever of novelty. If Higdon's orchestral pieces left some listeners cold, here is all warmth.
John Adams' Road Movies (1995) has been recorded a couple of times already, and well. Here it is given in a performance of such quality that it would certainly please the composer, however the crisp response and relatively dry sound of Çedille's recording makes a string contribution; the reverberation employed in recorded versions elsewhere tend to blur Adams' carefully wrought rhythmic ideas. Carl Ruggles' rarely played Mood for violin and piano (1918) has, conversely, only one other recording; here, Koh and Uchida do a terrific job capturing the granitic intensity of Ruggles' thorny, but highly romantic arcing contrapuntal lines. Lou Harrison's Grand Duo (1988) in a way brings us back to Cowell, particularly in the Prelude, which evokes Cowell's undulating lines of dissonant counterpoint. Overall, it is one of Harrison's suites that pulls together a disparate, though related, quodlibet of movements that draws from various parts of his musical thinking, more so the darker side of it, though the driving intensity of the Polka is like a rainy, sunny day, replete with comical tone clusters in the piano part. Koh's rendering of the violin part in the Harrison is -- to use a word he would have employed, were he still living -- luscious.
Both Koh and Uchida are wonderfully versatile throughout, and enjoy an equal and productive partnership as a duo; Koh's playing crackles with urgency and electricity, and Uchida directly interlocks with Koh's emotional output, never engaging in the kind of one-upmanship sometimes encountered in such recordings. If one is feeling out of touch with contemporary trends in classical music, and perhaps a little scared, though still interested enough to take the plunge, then String Poetic -- American Works: A 21st Century Perspective is a disc that will assist the listener in connecting with such trends. It is a highly enjoyable experience and demonstrates that challenge and fright are not necessarily viewed as synonyms in the new century when it comes to new music.