The Memorable Duo
Washington Irving High School
Claude Debussy: Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano in g-minor
György Kurtág: Tre pezzi
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 10 in G-major, Op. 96
Kaija Saariaho: Tocar
Gabriel Fauré: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in A-Major, Op. 13
Jennifer Koh (Violin), Shai Wosner (Piano)
S. Wosner, J. Koh (© Jürgen Frank)
Shai Wosner and Jennifer Koh have been performing together for over a decade. They last appeared in New York City during the 2015-16 season, when they offered a four-concert project “Bridge to Beethoven”, in which all of the Sonatas for Piano and Violin were presented in the context of contemporary work especially commissioned for that occasion. For the inaugural program of the venerated Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, in their 117th season, the duo revisited one of the finest of Beethoven Sonatas and this time they left it pretty much alone, even though it segued without a break from the preceding Three pezzi by Kurtág.
Before Kurtág and Beethoven, we heard a very stylish performance of Debussy Sonata in G-minor for Violin and Piano, one of the three such instrumental sonatas the French composer penned, and also one of his very last works completed in 1917, as the First World War raged in Europe. Koh, who might not possess the most luscious violin sound, compensated the volume for a lot of tonal variety, different shades of piano and perfect execution of a difficult solo part. She was greatly helped by Wosner, who as always offered excellent support: though his instrument has in this work rarely a leading voice, it has an extremely important part and to Wosner’s credit, this listener’s attention was often directed to the subtlety, tonal control, ability to bring out important voices, and energy and vitality which together created one perfect whole. The tempo of the middle movement Fantasque et léger this time was taken a tad slower than usual, but that allowed for more detail: the section where the piano imitates the pizzicatos of violin, reminded me for the first time of the solo riffs of the string bass we hear in jazz improvisations.
The Tre pezzi by Kurtág that followed, are diminutive musical aphorisms, like many other Kurtág works are. In their brevity, they remind one of enigmatic whispers, with occasional outbursts of emotion-or is it just pain?- and quickly recede into the realm of near silence. Here both instruments have to express themselves in the barely audible dynamic range, a task that was a little daunting: at that point some members of the audience were still arriving and while sitting themselves bravely fought the artists’ efforts. Considering that the dynamic indications Kurtág assigned to both instruments are marked as quadruple piano, it goes without saying that the first and third of the Tre pezzi were quite audible to those of us who came on time. Here I almost wish that the artists would opt to repeat the whole fascinating work: time and again Kurtág proves that in music, as in speech, to utter something in a whisper is at least as effective as shouting.
Koh and Wosner decided to follow without a break the miniatures of Kurtág with the last of Beethoven ten Sonatas for Piano and Violin, No. 10 in G-Major. This sonata belongs to about the most cheerful works of that period, which produced much more dramatic scores, such as String Quartet in F-minor opus 95. I have mentioned that the duo performed all ten of the sonatas last season at the 92 Street Y. Those four concerts remain in this listener’s memory as one of the highlights of that season.
What makes the Wosner-Koh version of the sonatas so compelling, so convincing? Wosner is first and foremost an excellent pianist and exceptional musician. By that I mean he offers his own view of even well-known works of music (such as Schubert Piano Sonatas) and presents them in a sometimes provocative yet credible manner. I described his Beethoven playing as combining the elegance of the great Robert Casadesus with the intelligence and incisiveness of Leon Fleisher. The only other pianist nowadays who comes to mind and who plays those works with a similar command is Sir András Schiff, and to be compared to him I consider one of the greatest compliments I can bestow on a pianist. However Wosner’s touch and playing possesses more affection and warmth than Casadesus’. Listening to an earlier performance and present traversal through the Sonata in G-Major, I had a feeling – as I do sometimes when witnessing superb music-making – that I was being led by an excellent and enthusiastic guide who would not only describe to me a picture or sculpture, but would also reveal the hidden details, which otherwise would escape my notice.
When one adds to the already described qualities of our musicians their impeccable taste, musicality and instrumental perfection, it is not difficult to understand why their Beethoven lingers in my memory as one of the most persuasive, gripping and exciting performances of recent years.
For the work of Kaija Saariaho, Tocar, which the duo has had in their repertoire almost from the time it was written in 2010, the composer herself appeared on stage and offered a short explanation. Here I’d like to quote her previous renarks: Tocar is “about the encounter of two instruments as different as the violin and piano,” asking the question: “how could they touch each other?” Well, a simple question with, as we’ll see, a complicated answer. She then goes further:
“Whilst composing music, I always imagine the instrumentalist’s fingers and their sensitivity. The violin sounds are created by the collaboration between the left hand and the bow controlled by the right hand. On the piano, the pianist should be extremely precise in order to control the moment when the fingers touch the keys, afterwards the sounds can be coloured only by the pedals. In spite of such different mechanisms, both instruments also have some common points, purely musical, noticeably they share some of the same register.
In “Tocar” both instruments move forward independently, but also keep an eye on each other. I imagine a magnetism becoming stronger and stronger – the piano part becomes more mobile – which draws the violin texture towards the piano writing culminating in an encounter in unison. After this short moment of symbiosis, the violin line is released from the measured piano motion, continuing its own life outside the laws of gravity.
The title, in Spanish, is translated as “to touch, to play”.
In situation like that sometimes I wish more composers, also in jazz, adopted a custom of calling their works by a name such as “Composition No.23” or “Composition No.48”(which obviously would differ from one another by at least by the 25 catalog numbers). So the question, in my opinion, has been answered. That being said Ms.Saariaho’s answer could supposedly be applied to a majority of music composed for violin and piano, couldn’t it? Still, to Ms. Saariaho’s credit – and this week she has been getting a lot of credit, just one day earlier being presented with a monographic concert by the New York Philharmonic – Tocar is a very interesting, very absorbing, very captivating work. I was impressed that its composer avoided falling into a trap of assigning the violin all the unnecessary aspects of a percussion instrument, which is these days almost de rigeur. In this traditionally conceived composition, I thought I almost felt echoes of Szymanowski, perhaps Dutillleux; in the music’s tension or delicacy, in its emotional, discordant, intense feeling. I don’t know if that work can be performed much better: the performance we’ve heard at Washington Irving High School auditorium seemed well nigh perfect.
The Sonata No. 1 in A-Major by Gabriel Fauré, which concluded the program, left me with an equally positive impression. It is one of the most beautiful French Romantic sonatas, likely modeled on its famous companion in the same key, by the Belgian César Franck. Here Fauré offers us the most fervent, ardent, poignant lines in the repertory and our artists conveyed the message in the music beautifully. What surprised me throughout the evening and here again, was Wosner’s touch: it is possible that to a great extent he was helped by a wonderful Steinway piano, but during this concert his piano sound was much more tender and delicate than on almost any other occasion. The soaring lines of Andante and impassioned last movement Allegro quasi presto impressed with the power and passion, while the graceful Scherzo delighted with nimble-fingered buoyancy, lightness, speed and accuracy that again brought to mind the famed pianist Casadesus. There were no encores, but perhaps there was no need for them; both artists in that brilliant duo gave their enthusiastic audience all it needed. One may only hope that they will come back soon.
Finally a word about Peoples’ Symphony Concert Series: from the very beginning and for the past 117 years its goal was to promote great music at prices that everyone could afford. The fact that to this day it is still possible borders on miracle. For many years these concerts have claimed to offer New York City’s “best value for the money”. To me this seems almost an understatement. In Japan, very important people are referred to as “national treasure”. There is no doubt PSC deserves the title “New York Treasure”.