Review: Signs, Games & Messages

04.14.14
Jennifer Koh & Shai Wosner , Shai Wosner, Jennifer Koh
Music Web International

By Jonathan Woolf

Another month, another Janácek Violin Sonata. That can’t be so but it’s the case that two such recordings have appeared for me almost simultaneously. Midori’s was in the context of a triptych of sonatas including Bloch’s Second and Shostakovich’s. Jennifer Koh and Shai Wosner instead follow a deliberately obscure path, tracing Bartók’s First Sonata and adding a series of works by Kurtág, largely culled from two ongoing series, the multi-volume Játékok, and Signs, Games and Messages, which he began in 1961.

In any case the more performances of the Janácek, the better, the more so when they offer such differing approaches. Midori’s was a definably centrist kind of performance but Koh’s is more extreme. She tends to smear her tone – quite a deliberate expressive ploy - but by doing it so early tends to rob subsequent incidents of their incremental power. This is not an easy work to bring off consistently well, as the Ballada seems often to inhabit a different world if one is not careful. Koh (and Wosner) just about skirt this danger but she cedes architectural questions to Midori, and neither really keeps pace with the classic Suk/Panenka recording where the movement’s proportions are outstanding and where Suk reserves his smokiest tone for those salient moments of the slow movement that most require it.

Bartók’s First Sonata is rather better all round though even here she can press things hard. That relates not so much to tempi as to tone. She brings a lot of colour and some roughness to her tone and this militancy sometimes renders the sonata more vertical than horizontal. Set against that, the slow movement’s opening fiddle soliloquy and piano chording are alike excellent and the abrasive, resinous drive generated in the finale – which some may find excessive – is, at least, a positive response to the vitality of the music. The Kurtág pieces offer epigrammatic zest and music of sighs and airy charm. Some of these brief pieces are laments, tersely searing (In memoriam Blum Tamás) whilst others, such as A Hungarian Lesson for Foreigners offer Kurtágian drollery in 19 seconds. The Three Pieces for violin and piano date from 1979 and are deft incisive miniatures, with plenty of rhythmic vitality – a March theme is especially vibrant. Doina, a piano miniature, offers a cimbalom sound world. Both Koh and Wosner play these pieces with a beautiful sense of characterisation.

Indeed they play everything with fiery commitment. If that’s what you want from the two principal works then the first-class recording won’t exactly come as a disappointment.