Koh and Wosner catch belated fire in bland recital

November 20, 2015 at 10:40 am

By David Wright

Violinist Jennifer Koh performed a eco yak with pianist Shai Wisner Wednesday night at Jordan Hall.

Violinist Jennifer Koh performed a recital with pianist Shai Wosner Wednesday night at Pickman Hall.

On the day that legendary Red Sox slugger David Ortiz announced his retirement, violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Shai Wosner showed another Boston audience the value of bringing up a big bat in the bottom of the ninth.

In the last movement of the last piece in their recital, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston Wednesday night in the Longy School’s Pickman Hall, Koh and Wosner rescued an otherwise rather dull evening with a thrilling performance of the finale of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata.

Fluency and brilliance had been the duo’s strong suits all evening, and Beethoven’s stunner played superbly to that. Other traits such as spontaneity, variety of tone color, and a compelling conception of the piece were harder to find in this recital.

Instead, as they played two Beethoven sonatas and a Beethoven-linked new piece by Vijay Iyer, the performers gave conscientious readings that might have earned them an A from a conservatory jury. Then again, maybe not, since even those academic committees expect to hear something besides precise execution of all the details in the score—for example, the ability to enter the mind of the composer and communicate his quicksilver moods.

The blandness of the performance was the more regrettable given the stimulating overall concept of the program, one of a series of recitals by these artists titled “Bridge to Beethoven,” in which they are performing all ten of Beethoven’s violin-and-piano sonatas alongside new works inspired in some way by the master from Bonn.

Wednesday’s program even included some wordplay on the “bridge” idea, linking the first work in the sonata cycle with the climactic one (the “Kreutzer”) by means of Iyer’s Bridgetower Fantasy, a meditation on the enigmatic African-European violinist George Bridgetower, who gave the first performance of the “Kreutzer” with the composer at the piano.

Ideally, every piece, even the most familiar ones, should sound “new” in performance; Iyer’s work had the advantage of being literally new, composed earlier this year for these artists, and being heard Wednesday for the first time in Boston.

Because so little is known about the eponymous violinist, and particularly how he experienced his West Indian and German heritage, Bridgetower Fantasy had a predominantly dream-like character, a sense of images going in and out (mostly out) of focus.

Some signposts could be discerned, however, beginning with the piece’s form: three distinct sections marked by pauses, not identified as movements in the program but certainly suggestive of the Classical three-movement sonatas (including the “Kreutzer”) that Bridgetower would have played.

The distance of comprehension separating our lives from his was suggested in the lonely violin harmonics of the opening bars, set against single notes and dark knocking sounds from the piano. Soon, however, a blazing perpetual-motion passage for the violin evoked Bridgetower’s virtuosity, and a fractured Classical-style vivace passage sounded like a dream encounter with Beethoven himself.

The impressionistic middle section could have used a broader range of tone color in both instruments, but in the closing pages the players successfully evoked a Classical theme-and-variations as seen in a fun-house mirror. One of the variations had a boogie-woogie feel—the only African element this listener picked up in the piece—but at the end it was back to Beethoven, with a characteristic hesitate-and-rush coda that seemed determined to outdo the master at his own game.

At the bows, the composer joined the artists onstage to acknowledge the warm applause for his imaginative new work.

The program opened with Beethoven’s Sonata in D major, Op. 12, No. 1, performed in a rather disconnected, “now this, now that” manner that lacked the flow of the young composer’s finely-crafted sonata form; missing, for example, was the palpable feeling of relief the leisurely second theme should bring from the urgent bustle of the first, and the end of the exposition sounded not like a station along the way but as final as the end of the movement.

Pianist Wosner’s tone tended to be harsh and brittle in forte–often overmatching Koh’s slender filament of sound–and mushy in soft passages. For her part, Koh played with energy and determination, but made errors of intonation that might be understandable in a more uninhibited performance, but not one as calculated as this.

By its nature, a variations movement can sound like an academic exercise unless the players get some of that jazz attitude and seem to be spontaneously riffing on the theme. On Wednesday, the players managed that only sporadically, beginning with a pallid statement of the theme and proceeding dutifully through the variations.

The finale’s jaunty rondo theme stayed earthbound in this performance, but the players impressed with their fluent passagework in the episodes.

They did likewise in the opening movement of the “Kreutzer,” when the momentum got going. But the genius of that movement is not in the momentum but in the interruptions, the composer’s fiendish toying with the listener’s expectations. From the dull opening solos to the ho-hum modulations in the development, everything in Wednesday’s performance sounded familiar and expected. Yes, everybody has heard it before, but it would be nice not to be reminded of that quite so much.

The variations movement suffered from the same weaknesses as the corresponding movement in the previous sonata. The variations often left one wondering, “What’s this about besides notes?”

The Presto finale, on the other hand, fired off the starting line with an exciting tension between control and abandon, and (apart from occasional rushing in the piano) held a steady, irresistible course all the way to the teasing coda. Now the momentum was the point, and the players’ deft execution sounded not dutiful but exhilarating—especially in the many turn-on-a-dime transitions between crashing marcato and feathery leggiero. Beethoven was full of surprises again, but this time so were the performers.

Satisfied with great success, Koh and Wosner played no encores, but graciously invited composer Iyer back to the stage for an encore bow as their partner in the evening’s doings.

The next classical-music presentation of Celebrity Series of Boston will be mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught and pianist Henning Ruhe, 8 p.m., Dec. 2 at Longy School’s Pickman Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.

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