Chamber recital was murky

Posted: February 01, 2013

The last ghostly notes evaporated, bare suggestions of pitch-specific wind, really. And then without pause, Jennifer Koh headed into Brahms' Violin Sonata in D minor with pianist Shai Wosner. Were they trying to establish some relationship between the Brahms and the piece before, György Kurtág's Tre Pezzi? Did they elide the works to ensure that Wednesday night's Perelman Theater audience didn't curdle the peace with applause?

A little explanation to listeners about this and other matters would have gone a long way in Koh's Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital. The Kurtág, from 1979, was enigmatic enough; I'm afraid the rest of the program, Janácek's Violin Sonata and the Violin Sonata No. 1 of Bartók, left much of the audience in the dark. "I'll wait for you to explain what that was about," one by-no-means-unsophisticated listener said to me after the Bartók.

The work, from 1921, has all the folk influence and dissonance that typically infuse his scores, but with much greater emphasis on the dissonance. Actually, repeated material and playing around with whole-tone sequences gives the ear a lot to grab hold of, and Koh's variation of her sound in the second movement, rich one moment and raw the next, was strikingly beautiful.

Wosner was the star in the Janácek, his diaphanous tone deeply sympathetic to the Debussy-like writing.

But who is Koh as an interpreter, a personality? In parts of the Bartók she was commanding, beginning to tap into a promising emotional reserve. It didn't pan out that way in the Brahms. She certainly had the notes. But while Wosner was exploring big ideas, digging into the details of a phrase or emphasizing an interesting texture, Koh often stuck to a note-by-note conception of the piece. The sonata's second movement "Adagio" is frequently lifted from its context for elegiac occasions, and with good reason; it is one of Brahms' most noble statements, obviously suggesting a meaning outside itself. To the insightful performer, the imperative should be no less true.


Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.

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