July 2004

Rachel Barton - Brahms & Joachim Violin Concertos
Rachel Barton, violin; Chicago Symphony Orchestra;Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Cedille Records CDR 90000 068
Released: 2003

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Jennifer Koh - Violin Fantasies
Jennifer Koh, violin; Reiko Uchida, piano
Cedille Records CDR 90000 073
Released: 2004

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

by Bill Brooks

Cedille Records is the label of the Chicago Classical Recording Foundation. This organization is a publicly supported, not-for-profit organization that is "devoted to promoting the finest musicians, ensembles, and composers in the Chicago area through the production of audiophile-quality recordings on the Cedille Records label." The goal itself is a worthy one. The result is a new resource of great performances recorded with demo-quality production.

The first disc here features 28-year-old Rachel Barton, a talented young violinist who has performed with some of the best orchestras in the world in Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, Dallas, Montreal, Vienna, and Budapest. She began her career as a seven-year-old prodigy, and has since worked with many world-renowned conductors. But perhaps what gives us more insight into her style is her many personal contrasts. Barton seems as comfortable talking about her favorite rock bands -- Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, and Megadeath -- as she does discussing Joachim, Handel, Brahms, and Beethoven. Indeed she has even opened at Chicago’s House of Blues for Slash (from Guns N’ Roses) and Sammy Hagar.

On her fifth release for Cedille Records, Barton plays concertos by Johannes Brahms and Joseph Joachim. The two composers were known to have been good friends who learned from and collaborated with one another, or as Barton would say, "they jammed together." The two concertos make an interesting contrast. Joachim’s concerto is very playful and gypsy-like in tempo and melody, whereas the Brahms’s piece is more stately and poised. Doing justice to just one of these great concertos would be considered an accomplishment. Barton does much more than that, providing refreshing interpretations and skilled performances of both.

Parts of Joachim’s Hungarian Concerto are largely dominated by the symphony. A lesser talent would get lost, but Barton remains the focus of the music. Her playing is extremely balanced, sounding more like an experienced master than a showy virtuoso. While this balance is maintained throughout the performance, there are times when Barton just steals the show. In the finale, she cuts loose and the result is an electrifying display of skill and finesse.

The Brahms’ performance, although less playful by nature, is no less intriguing. The relaxed tempos compliment the smooth, warm sound Barton coaxes from the 1742 Guarneri del Gesu, Cremona violin. The catalog of Brahms violin concertos is crowded, and to capture a performance that really grabs the listener’s attention is a real accomplishment.

Carlos Kalmar and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are hardly left in the shadows on these discs. The playing is superb, as is the sonic nature of Orchestra Hall, which has been captured skillfully on this release.

Violin Fantasies is a captivating and invigorating collection of performances, featuring the talents of violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Reiko Uchida. While Koh and Barton may be about the same age, they do not share the same style. Where Barton plays, as I noted above, like the experienced master, Koh is the showy virtuoso. She attacks the violin in a way that is exciting and intense. Her playing has bite. The freeform style of a "fantasy" is perfect for Koh.

The Shubert and Schumann fantasies are the tamest. Tame may an exaggeration, as Koh still manages to raise this music to an intensity that might otherwise not be found with these compositions.

It is with the Schoenberg and Ornette Coleman pieces, however, that Koh really takes off. The Schoenberg piece is like a disturbing abstract painting, filled with color, contrast, texture, and punch. The strings of her "Strad" often seem ready to break from the pressure. The Coleman piece is less peculiar, but no less intoxicating. Its jazz influence is obvious and shows its improvisational roots.

Uchida’s skill at the piano should be strongly noted. A lesser pianist would get run over when accompanying someone with Koh’s frantic style. Uchida maintains her poise while managing to showcase both musicians.

Cedille Records is a welcome addition to the shrinking field of classical audiophile labels.