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Signs, Games & Messages
ČEK (1854-1928)
Sonata for violin and piano JW VII/7 (1921) [17:29]
Gyorgy KURTAG (b.1926)
Doina (from Jatekok, Vol. VI) (1973) [2:28]
The Carenza Jig (from Signs, Games and Messages) (1961) [0:45]
The Pezzi for Violin and Piano, Op. 14e (1979) [5:31]
Fundamentals No. 2 [0:30]
In memoriam Blum Tamas [3:08]
Like the flowers of the field… [1:52]
Postcard to Anna Keller [0:30]
A Hungarian Lesson for Foreigners [0:19]
Fanfare to Judit Maros’ wedding [0:46]
Les Adieux (in Janaceks Manier) [2:05]
In Nomine – all’ongherese [4:51]
Belá BARTÓK (1881-1945)
First Sonata for violin and piano, Sz. 75 (1921) [35:14]
Jennifer Koh (violin), Shai Wosner (piano).
rec. 27-28 April, 14-17 October, 2012, American Academy of Arts and Letters, NYC.
CEDILLE RECORDS CDR 90000 143 [76:15]

In the ‘Artists’ Statement’ at the beginning of the notes to this CD, Jennifer Koh and Shai Wosner write that each work ‘inhabits two worlds’, those being ‘the tension between the visionary modernism of these masterpieces , and the visceral pull of folk and cultural memory’. As elements essential to the composers on this CD Koh and Wosner set out to explore the improvisatory freedom, abstract passages, various allusions and traditional influences within each composition.
An admixture of overflowing floridity and spontaneous fragments form Janáček’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. It is to their credit that these two artists convincingly portray the dramatic intensity and foray of colours embedded within this magnificent work. Negotiating and intensifying Janáček’s ‘melodic curve’ is a task that they astutely and knowingly undertake. According to Janáček: ‘The melodic curves of speech are an expression of the complete organism and of all phases of its spiritual activities. They demonstrate whether a man is stupid or intelligent, sleepy or awake, tired or alert. They tell us whether he is a child or an old man, whether it is morning or evening, light or darkness, heat or frost, and disclose whether a person is alone or in company. The art of dramatic writing is to compose a melodic curve that will, as if by magic, reveal immediately a human being in one definite phase of his existence.’ To their credit, these musicians embody the spiritual and humane elements in this process. Within the sharp dissonances and chromatic tones, Janáček shifts from major to minor and Koh adds an improvisatory quality. The juxtaposition of miniature motifs throughout is judged superbly by Wosner, as well as the tempo and dynamic changes. Koh gives voice to a sense of mystery and suspense in the third movement (Allegretto). Both musicians build a tension which is simultaneously released and expanded in the final section.
As quoted in the informative and extensive sleeve notes to this album, the apparent attention to detail and observation of silence in Kurtag’s work is far from a reduction; according to broadcaster and journalist Tom Service: ‘Kurtag’s fragments are about musical and, above all, expressive intensification: maximising the effect and impact of every note, every gesture’. Nowhere is this introspective silence and stillness more prevalent than in Doina (from Jatekok, Vol. VI) and Od und traurig (from Tre Pezzi for Violin and Piano, Op. 14e). Also from the Tre Pezzi, angular, cubist motion is expressed in Vivo. The vocal sounds in Fundamentals No. 2 reveal Kurtag’s exposure to the works of Samuel Beckett: silence, uncertainty and nothingness struggle to ‘be’ in a form of self-conscious representation and repetition. Alluding to this angst of living Kurtag once admitted: ‘I realised to the point of despair that nothing I had believed to constitute the world was true’. Thus, severely suffering from depression, Kurtag’s works are both relentlessly questioning and helplessly defeatist. Amidst the sense of pondering gloominess, there is a faint glow of light. This is miraculously expressed by Wosner in Like the flowers of the field…
Burgeoning energy and soul are ignited in this performance of Bartók’s First Sonata for Violin and Piano, Sz. 75. Excelling in the rhapsodic opening to the first movement, Koh performs with the required virtuosity in the third movement and sensitivity to the underlying folk influences. Commenting on the presence of the folk tradition, Bartók stated: ‘Our peasant music, naturally, is invariably tonal, if not always in the sense that the inflexible major and minor system is tonal. (An ‘atonal’ folk-music, in my opinion, is unthinkable.) Since we depend upon a tonal basis of this kind in our creative work, it is quite self-evident that our works are quite pronouncedly tonal in type.’
The brilliance of Koh and Wosner in this recording is that the violin does not blithely soar over the percussive piano. The textures of the instruments as well as the rhythm and dynamics intertwine and engage, evolving and even morphing into different shapes throughout the three movements. Accordingly, it was Bartók’s sentiment that ‘In art there are only fast or slow developments. Essentially it is a matter of evolution, not revolution’. In the Adagio, Koh’s sound is rich and woody with a nymph-like elusive quality as it emerges from the corners of Wosner’s expansive boundaries. The music seemingly runs wild and carefree in the beginning and pizzicato phrases of the Allegro. That said nobody can forget Georg Monch and Massimiliano Damerini’s mesmerising recording of this piece in Vol. 2 of Bela Bartók: Music for Violin and Piano for Etcetera.
On this CD, this ‘impressive partnership’ - according to the New York Times - is realised as Wosner’s expressiveness and Koh’s intuitive playing come together. Tackling both abstract pieces and formidable repertoire these two approach each composition with freshness and vigour, tenderness and attention to detail. They let silences speak and dig into the depths of fraught tension whilst picking out elements of folk tradition. This is a fine album.

Lucy Jeffery

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf