Some programs, however lovingly put together, are too smart by half. Here is a case in point. Jennifer Koh and Shai Wosner make an extremely impressive duo. The Janácek and Bartók sonatas are magnificently played. In the former, all the music’s passionate intensity and eruptive gestural language produces an unforgettable impression, especially in the second movement Ballade and concluding Adagio. The Bartók First Sonata also is a major work, and a tough piece written in the composer’s densest harmonic language. Here, there are magical moments such as the first movement’s impressionistic central episode and most of the ensuing adagio that very effectively play off of the gutsy rhythmic passages (in the finale especially). Listening is a joy.
The problems concern the 13 brief Kurtág pieces in the middle, mainly extracts from his collection of Signs, Games and Messages. These fragmentary, aphoristic musical bits cover a wide range of style and gesture, but their appeal is limited. I suppose works such as A Hungarian Lesson for Foreigners, which consists of a few bangs on the piano and someone yelling in Hungarian, are funny on first hearing, but will you ever play them again? The fact is that Kurtág sounds awfully thin next to Janácek and Bartók. Koh and Wosner most likely intended maximum contrast, and the technical standard remains very high, but the result comes across as merely patchy. I sometimes wonder who the intended audience is for these obligatory obeisances to modern music. Others may disagree, but I recommend this excellently recorded disc for the beautiful performances of the two sonatas alone.