Cellist Jonah Kim has an impeccable musical pedigree: child prodigy, discovered by Janos Starker, studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, early success as a soloist with major orchestras. In a Sunday afternoon concert at the Phillips Collection, he showed plenty of ability to wring a tune from his instrument, but without some complementary skills in programming and interpretation, it is all for naught.
The first half of this recital was like one of those “Most Relaxing Classical Adagio” compilations: a series of musical confections usually performed as encores. Although three of David Popper’s schmaltzy miniatures and arrangements of Gabriel Faure’s song “Apres un reve” and one of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” should have been enough, the glucose level passed into dangerous territory with a vulgar version of Remo Giazotto’s infamous “Adagio,” passed off as the work of Tomaso Albinoni. Kim played it all with clean intonation and a rich, impassioned tone, high-octane because of an intense vibrato. Kim’s spontaneous introduction, the prelude from Bach’s cello suite in G, seemed to be an admission that the program was a little heavy on the sweets.
The Brahms E minor cello sonata, Op. 38, was ostensibly the “steak” on this menu, to borrow the metaphor used by Kim in his awkward comments. An undercurrent of turbulent anguish rippled through the quiet opening, offering a glimmer of this performer’s capabilities. All too soon, Kim tried to turn the dial to 11, as it were, scrubbing the strings and creating some rather ugly, guttural sounds at the loudest dynamics, especially in the third movement, matched pace for pace by pianist Hanchien Lee. Kim then showed that Chopin’s youthful but crass “Polonaise brillante,” Op. 3, can be a showstopper, following it up with yet another encore piece, an arrangement of Chopin’s nocturne, Op. 9 No. 2.