Sunday, October 14, 2012

Review: Jennifer Koh

with Shai Wosner, piano
Oct. 13, Virginia Commonwealth University

Violinist Jennifer Koh is one of the best of a growing number of young and youngish artists who come at the classical repertory through the looking glass, so to speak – presenting familiar works in unfamiliar company, shuffling chronology and style, veering from the sensual to the brainy and back (sometimes within the same piece), and making the presentation work through a combination of technical precision and palpable passion for the music at hand.

Koh’s program for her VCU recital with pianist Shai Wosner was characteristically venturesome: a first half of sonatas by Leoš Janáček and Béla Bartók, a second half with György Kurtág’s “Tre Pezzi” miniatures serving as a prelude to . . . Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor. For many in the audience, it was a harrowing journey that finally ended in a warm, safe place.

The chief harrow was Bartók’s Sonata in C sharp minor for violin and piano. The two instruments play markedly different material quite independently of each other; if the performers are mutually attentive and sensitive, occasional, and rather shaky, reconciliation of their parts is possible. Koh and Wosner assumed their respective characters (songful but intense and vigorously rhythmic, respectively) and maintained a certain respectful distance. They played up all available tension and surprise in the sonata’s long central adagio but couldn’t make it sound like a coherent whole.

Janáček’s Violin Sonata (1914-21) is, as its dates suggest, music echoing to the upheaval and radical transformation of Central Europe during and after World War I. As a Czech, eager to throw off Austro-Hungarian rule, the composer looked to Russia, both as a liberator and pan-Slavic cultural beacon. The sonata, a kind of mind’s ear soundtrack to Janáček’s thinking and feelings about the world changing around him, employs many of the same expressive devices that Janáček used in his operas, making this piece sound like a wordless chamber drama.

Koh was a vivid protagonist, playing at an expressive pitch one might expect to hear in Tchaikovsky or even Mussorgsky. Wosner was a richly evocative musical presence throughout the piece.

Kurtág’s “Tre Pezzi” are three short nonlinear pieces about sound and tone color. The tones, especially those of the violin, are quiet and tonally rarified, usually resonating into silence. The set was a surprisingly effective ear-cleanser for the Brahms.

The duo’s performance of the Brahms was straightforward. Koh and Wosner played with breadth and expression, but seemed intent on not over-interpreting this staple sonata. One sensed that Wosner wanted a bit more flexibility in phrasing.