Notes and Editorial Reviews
A knack for making the familiar sound fresh and new.
Piano Sonatas: in C,
6 German Dances,
Shai Wosner (pn)
My last encounter with a recording of Schubert’s “Reliquie” Sonata was not a happy one. That performance, reviewed in
35: 3, was by Gerhard Oppitz, who tweezed out the first movement to an intractable length of 19:21. Granted, Sviatoslav Richter tortured it for even longer—22:26—but managed to make sense of Schubert’s detached, abstract rambling. The bigger problem with Oppitz’s performance wasn’t the time dimension but a lack of focus and coherence.
Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner, who studied at Juilliard with Emanuel Ax, largely solves the time problem by shaving more than two minutes off of Oppitz’s reading, while still managing to take the repeat; to a significant degree Wosner succeeds in giving impetus to the static repeated eighth notes and in rationalizing Schubert’s strange harmonic and modulatory ambiguities. Still, this highly unbalanced two-movement structure—unfinished like so many of the composer’s works—remains a tough nut to crack. Wosner does a better job of it than many others I’ve heard, but not even he, having led me to the water’s edge, can persuade me to drink from it; that, in my opinion, is Schubert’s fault, not Wosner’s.
The D-Major Sonata, not infrequently referred to as the “Gastein” for the spa town where Schubert wrote it in 1825, is mostly a happier affair, to the extent that Schubert is ever truly happy. The pervasive triplets and unusually extensive reliance on parallel octaves between the hands in the first movement present the player with a challenge to find the geographical features and signposts that point the way to landfall through this rushing river of notes. One can’t help but wonder if Schubert didn’t have Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata in his head when he wrote this movement. Wosner finds subtle variances in the swirling eddy and sufficient repose in the central
Un poco più lento
section to lead us on a scenic and satisfying rafting trip through the rapids.
Schubert wrote dozens of pieces collected into sets under the title of German Dances. The set included here, D 820, dates from 1824 and is by no means the last he would write. These particular numbers are shorter than others of their type—six of them fit into less than five-and-a-half minutes—and are of such similarity that it’s hard to know where one ends and the next begins. This isn’t helped any by Onyx’s CD, which bands them together in a single track.
, D 817, is almost as long by itself as are the six German Dances combined. Schubert spent part of the summer of 1824 in Zseliz, today a town in Slovakia, where it’s said he was exposed to the Gypsy music-making that inspired the piece. It remained unpublished and generally unknown to the public for a full century after the composer’s death. On evidence of the music, which is very pretty, one can say that the Gypsy spirit didn’t course through Schubert’s veins quite as strongly as it did in Brahms’s.
Shai Wosner has yet to make a big name for himself on record—to my knowledge, this is only his second CD, the first being a disc of works by Brahms and Schoenberg—but with this Schubert recital he demonstrates that he certainly has the potential to go far. Wosner is a young artist definitely worth keeping an eye on, and this Schubert release is recommended without reservations.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Clarity, precision and discipline are qualities all too rare in recordings of Schubert's piano music. His infectious melodies are usually more than the performer can resist and the tunes end up leading the tempos and phrasing.
But Shai Wosner takes a different approach. He knows that Schubert's melodies don't need any help, so he makes no effort to mould the individual movements around their themes. Instead he prioritises the architecture. The structure of Schubert's movements is rarely innovative, but his use of traditional forms is always effective.
From the first, quiet notes of the D840 Sonata it is clear that Wosner is thinking ahead and looking towards the movement's climax. And when the climax comes it is earth-shattering. The lack of rubato and the extreme dynamics make Wosner's playing seem all the more insistent - obsessive even. This, combined with the relatively dispassionate approach to the melodies, makes the readings of the two sonatas almost symphonic. In his liner-notes, Wosner compares the opening movement of the D840 with a Bruckner symphony. Hearing anybody else play the work, the comparison would seem far fetched, but Wosner demonstrates exactly what he means.
Given the austerity of his approach, it is ironic that Wosner has chosen works inspired by folksongs and rustic country life. He explains that most of Schubert's life was spent in Vienna, but that these works are associated with his few stays out of town, most notably as a tutor to the Esterházys. Perhaps his intention was to save this music from the pastoral and excessively Romantic readings you find elsewhere and to locate it firmly in the Classical era.
In fact, Wosner's dynamic range, the power of his instrument (a Steinway D) and the sophistication of his touch all make the results sound thoroughly modern. His touch is precise and clear yet infinitely varied in texture and colour. This is where subtly comes into Wosner's Schubert. Where most other pianists would make their mark on this music through the shaping of the phrases, Wosner relies on the sound that he makes at the piano to set himself apart. And the clear, ringing tones he achieves in every register and dynamic make each moment of this recording a delight to hear.
The quality of the sound recording helps to get this essential aspect of Wosner's playing across. The bass end of the piano, not a region usually associated with Schubert, is often put to dramatic use, both in thundering climaxes and distant pianissimos. The presence and immediacy of the piano's tone down here really allow Wosner to create the atmosphere he is looking for.
So what now for Shai Wosner? This disc is easily the equal of his previous offering on
Onyx, which paired Brahms with Schoenberg to impressive effect. I could imagine both Brahms and Schoenberg appreciating this kind of reading of Schubert, the clearest precursor to their disciplined Romanticism. It would be fascinating to find out what Wosner would make of Mozart's Sonatas. As here, there would no doubt be a certain tension between the text and the interpretation, but this pianist has a knack for making the familiar sound fresh and new, so a few more discs of the core Viennese repertoire would be very welcome indeed.
-- Gavin Dixon, MusicWeb International
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