San Francisco Examiner
By Stephen Smoliar
November 8, 2015
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Jennifer Koh and Shai Wosner couple Beethoven’s wit with Widmann’s darkness

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the second recital in the four-concert Bridge to Beethoven: A Journey in Four Nights project, performed by violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Shai Wosner. The “bridge” is between past and present, joining the ten sonatas for “piano and obbligato violin” by Ludwig van Beethoven with four commissioned new works, one for each of the “four nights” of the series. Last night’s commission was by German composer (and clarinetist) Jörg Widmann, Entitled “Sommersonate” (summer sonata), it was coupled with Beethoven’s Opus 24 in F major, often known as the “spring” sonata, although Beethoven himself was not responsible for that epithet.

However, this was a program that was elegantly structured around several additional couplings. Thus, Opus 24, which concluded the program, was complemented by opening with Opus 23 in A minor, thus bringing together the two sonatas that Beethoven had composed in 1801. However, Opus 23 was also coupled, in the first half of the program, with the second of the Opus 12 sonatas from 1798, which was composed in the key of A major. Even more interesting was that Opus 23 complements its outer two A minor movements with an A major Andante scherzoso in the middle, while the A major sonata has a similar alternation with A minor. Thus, over the course of the two sonatas the listener experienced three alternations from minor to major.

If that were not enough, there was also a fascinating coupling of the A major sonata with Opus 24. The violin part in the A major sonata begins with a playful series of appoggiatura motifs separated by rests, and those same motifs resurface when the piano plays the final statement of the rondo theme in the concluding movement of Opus 24. Both passages are in 6/8 time; but the violin plays its appoggiaturas on the beat, while in Opus 24 it is the rests that are on the beat. Thus, this was an evening that was replete with connecting bridges, some of which may not have been explicitly planned by the performers.

It was also an evening with any number of demonstrations of the young Beethoven’s capacity for wit. As was the case with the first of the Opus 12 sonatas, performed at the first program this past Wednesday evening, there was no shortage of humorous give-and-take exchanges, suggesting that Beethoven was determined to one-up the many tricks he had observed in the work of his master, Joseph Haydn. (For the record, however, Beethoven dedicated the three Opus 12 sonatas to Antonio Salieri, with whom Beethoven studied after Haydn left for his second trip to London.) Furthermore, while Opus 23 certainly has a “dramatic” first movement, Beethoven’s sense of humor takes control in his clever approach to turning his Andante movement into a scherzo; and those high spirits spill over into the final movement, even with its minor key.

Between the alternation between A minor and A major in the two three-movement sonatas of the first half and the more extended scope of the four-movement Opus 24 at the end of the program, there were no shortage of opportunities for expressiveness. Once again Koh and Wosner performed as a perfectly matched pair when it came to presenting that expressiveness to the attentive listener. This was an evening in which it seemed as if every detail was a precious gem unto itself, but it was also one in which the spirit of Beethoven’s inventiveness provided a unifying force. Both Koh and Wosner clearly knew how to work both in-the-small and in-the-large at the same time, resulting in a presentation of Beethoven’s early chamber music at its most stimulating.

Widmann’s two-movement sonata, on the other hand, provided contrast through much darker shades. This may strike many as a rather odd, if not perverse, view of the summer that follows spring. However, recall the almost sinister qualities of the G minor “summer” concerto that follows the joyous E major “spring” concerto (complete with chirping birds) in Antonio Vivaldi’s Opus 8. Widmann is not quite this sinister. However, there are several nineteenth-century tropes that mingle with the dissonances of the first movement to suggest a melancholic nostalgia, while the sense of “points of sound” in the second movement suggests nocturnal qualities that tend to magnify even the slightest sensations.

Nevertheless, one must be fair in noting that Widmann’s compositions have not been given very much exposure here in San Francisco, if not in the United States in general. Indeed, my only previous encounter with Widmann’s music performed in concert was in March of 2011; and I have SFP to thank for arranging that concert! Last night’s reading by Koh and Wosner definitely seemed like an attentive one, but the major impression left by the performance was a desire to listen to the music one or more subsequent times before drawing any conclusions as to what the composer was doing or how the musicians were endowing it with expressiveness.

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