The San Diego Union-Tribune
By Christian Hertzog
August 17, 2017
There used to be a stereotype about contemporary classical music specialists: Sure, they can knock out complex rhythms, find microtones and perform unusual instrumental techniques, but they can’t play Beethoven.
Like all stereotypes, it was a gross exaggeration drawn from isolated examples, but 30 years ago, there were some mediocre performances of the classics by new music authorities to which naysayers could smugly point.
Violinist Jennifer Koh’s SummerFest recital Wednesday night at UC San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Concert Hall was a happy refutation of that old generalization. With pianist Shai Wosner, Koh blazed through three Beethoven violin sonatas, the last of the evening a white-hot performance of the monumental “Kreutzer” sonata.
Koh came to international prominence after winning the Tchaikovsky Prize in 1994, and while she’s always performed the past masters such as Tchaikovsky, Bach, Beethoven and Bartok, she’s best known for her commitment to living composers.
Anyone who saw the last touring production of Philip Glass’ landmark opera, “Einstein on the Beach,” will not soon forget Koh’s solos between scenes, furiously bowing away while dressed as Albert Einstein.
She has commissioned composers to write works reflecting on Bach’s “Sonatas and Partitas” for solo violin to be programmed in tandem with Bach. This year, she is performing commissions from Vijay Iyer, Andrew Norman, Jorg Widmann, and Anthony Cheung as commentary on some of Beethoven’s violin sonatas. It’s too bad SummerFest couldn’t find room on the schedule for Iyer’s “Bridgetower Fantasy,” a musical rumination on the Afro-European violinist who premiered the “Kreutzer” Sonata with Beethoven.
Koh and Wosner’s rendition of the “Kreutzer” sonata was a magnanimously full-bodied conception that never lost sight of the details, and there were plenty of fleeting moments to cherish amid the rush of the outer movements and the poetic dignity of the second movement.
Wosner’s trills were marvelously executed, every single note articulated in precise rhythm. However, these were no gears purring away, but rather a clockwork bird’s song magically imbued with life. The variations gave Wosner the opportunity to display a gorgeous cantabile tone, a fine partner to Koh’s silky caress of the theme.
Koh brought a dramatic urgency to her sound, a fire-in-the-belly striving that was overwhelming in Beethoven’s climaxes. In her softer moments, she coyly played with a judicious rubato, teasing with the melody, delaying it ever so slightly.
The program began with Beethoven’s first two violin sonatas, Opus 12. These works are less ferocious, finding Beethoven comfortably trying on the Viennese classical style, and adding his own twists to it.
In Opus 12, No. 1, Wosner’s rhythm at times was a little too matter-of-fact. Compared to Jon Kimura Parker’s Beethoven, Wosner used more pedal to connect lines and alter his color, but it was tastefully done. Like Parker, Wosner’s finger work could be dazzling, as in the triplets of the first movement of Opus 12, No. 2.
Koh was much more in front of the accompaniment than Cho-Liang Lin was on Tuesday, and she played with more expression than him, but never excessively so.
Their performances of these two early sonatas were playful, but both musicians seemed to find the “Kreutzer” sonata a better match to their personalities.
The evening ended with an encore of the brief, witty third movement from Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata, a nice musical bow to wrap up the duo’s performance.
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