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Signs, Games, and Messages: Violin Sonatas from Eastern Europe / Koh, Wosner

Janacek / Koh / Wosner
Release Date: 10/29/2013 
Label:  Cedille Records   Catalog #: 143   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  György KurtágBéla BartókLeos Janácek
Performer:  Jennifer KohShai Wosner
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 16 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Some programs, however lovingly put together, are too smart by half. Here is a case in point. Jennifer Koh and Shai Wosner make an extremely impressive duo. The Janacek and Bartók sonatas are magnificently played. In the former, all the music’s passionate intensity and eruptive gestural language produces an unforgettable impression, especially in the second movement Ballade and concluding Adagio. The Bartók First Sonata also is a major work, and a tough piece written in the composer’s densest harmonic language. Here, there are magical moments such as the first movement’s impressionistic central episode and most of the ensuing adagio that very effectively play off of the gutsy rhythmic passages (in the finale especially). Read more Listening is a joy.

The problems concern the 13 brief Kurtág pieces in the middle, mainly extracts from his collection of Signs, Games and Messages. These fragmentary, aphoristic musical bits cover a wide range of style and gesture, but their appeal is limited. I suppose works such as A Hungarian Lesson for Foreigners, which consists of a few bangs on the piano and someone yelling in Hungarian, are funny on first hearing, but will you ever play them again? The fact is that Kurtág sounds awfully thin next to Janacek and Bartók. Koh and Wosner most likely intended maximum contrast, and the technical standard remains very high, but the result comes across as merely patchy. I sometimes wonder who the intended audience is for these obligatory obeisances to modern music. Others may disagree, but I recommend this excellently recorded disc for the beautiful performances of the two sonatas alone.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com

Jennifer Koh studied with Felix Galimir at the Marlboro School and Jaime Laredo at the Curtis Institute; she won a silver medal at the 1994 International Tchaikovsky Competition (a year in which no gold was awarded) and has appeared with all the major American orchestras and many abroad. One may see her in action on YouTube, performing Paganini with the Chicago Symphony, displaying amazing aplomb and panache for an 11-year old, or for any age. She has tended to avoid the warhorses of the repertory, as her recordings—from Bach to Zorn—show.

In a brief discussion of this disc (also seen on YouTube), pianist Shai Wosner says “it’s intense music; we wanted to milk the most out of every bar.” Yet the Janácek performance strikes me as just the opposite: A silky violin and a gentle piano—in a warm, reverberant acoustic setting—emphasize the inherent beauty of this music rather than its intensity or its connections to folk music. Janácek’s spiky harmonies and jumpy, stabbing attacks are played down. Many listeners may prefer this Romantic-era approach, but it soft-pedals the composer’s essence, the character that makes him unique. For a more vibrant performance, try Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich on DG, which John Wiser nailed ( Fanfare 16:4) as having “a touch of Gypsy exoticism.”

György Kurtág has written what we call full-length works, but our attention has been focused on his many sets of miniatures. Signs, Games, and Messages (also the title of this disc) and Játékok (also “Games”) are both large collections of small pieces composed over many years. Are they completed? Only the composer could answer that question. The former are for “vn, va, vc, db in various combinations, as solos, duos, trios, qts.” ( The New Grove II ); these four are played here by the solo violin. Játékok are for piano, some with vocal additions—momentary noises rather than song or poetry. Tre Pezzi are for violin and piano; they are played together, as a three-movement work, whereas the other pieces are more or less randomly distributed around them (at the artists’ pleasure, of course), providing instrumental variety to these 27 minutes. But this variety may disrupt the accumulated effect of a Kurtág collection: a Mode CD has 24 Signs, Games, and Messages played by violist Maurizio Barbetti, and it is stunning—perhaps it is his magnificent performance, capturing every mood, every wry twist, that makes such a difference.

Koh and Wosner are superb in Bartók’s First Sonata. She expresses the full measure of the music without ever producing a single ugly or even awkward note; he is a powerhouse as well as a subtle presence. They do “milk the music” to its fullest intensity. It is astonishing that Koh’s elegant, liquid tones can be so assertive, matching Wosner at every step. There have been so many recordings of the Bartók sonatas, seemingly half of them by Gidon Kremer, often partnered, again, by Martha Argerich. Kremer takes a lighter view of the First Sonata than Koh—I am particularly partial to his 1972 Hungaroton recording with Yury Smirnov. Kremer’s playing has more edge than Koh, in two senses: He finds a special relish in the music, at the cost of some less than silky tones. I like the result, but listeners who prefer a purely beautiful violin should snap up this Cedille disc.

FANFARE: James H. North
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Works on This Recording

Signs, Games and Messages by György Kurtág
Performer:  Jennifer Koh (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1989-1997; Hungary 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts and Letters, Ne 
Length: 4 Minutes 55 Secs. 
Like the flowers of the field, for piano by György Kurtág
Performer:  Shai Wosner (Piano)
Venue:  American Academy of Arts and Letters, Ne 
Length: 1 Minutes 54 Secs. 
Sonata for Violin and Piano no 1, Sz 75 by Béla Bartók
Performer:  Jennifer Koh (Violin), Shai Wosner (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1921; Budapest, Hungary 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts and Letters, Ne 
Length: 35 Minutes 19 Secs. 
Sonata for Violin and Piano by Leos Janácek
Performer:  Jennifer Koh (Violin), Shai Wosner (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1914-1921; Brno, Czech Republic 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts and Letters, Ne 
Length: 16 Minutes 55 Secs. 
Jatekok by György Kurtág
Performer:  Jennifer Koh (Violin)

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