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Will The Real Schubert Please Stand Up?

New York
92 Street Y, Buttenwieser Hall
04/13/2018 -  
Franz Schubert : Sonatas in A minor, D. 845 & in C Minor, D. 958
Shai Wosner (piano)

S. Wosner (© Marco Borggreve)

Several years ago the 92 Street Y adopted an interesting format of presenting concerts in their relatively newly opened venue on the 2nd Floor Laemmlein and Leah Buttenwieser Hall, a smallish hall that seats about 200 people and is perfectly suited to chamber music and specialized recitals. The programs start there at 9PM, a rather unusual time and run about 75 minutes. In lieu of intermission, audience members are offered complimentary wine – or water, if preferred – to take with them into the hall. Well, I guess our mood is already sufficiently improved...

For Shai Wosner, an Israeli born pianist living in New York, the 92nd Street Y is a preferred performance venue. Last season, he was heard there in a series of intriguing programs called “Bridge to Beethoven” in which he and his partner, violinist Jennifer Koh, combined Beethoven Sonatas for Piano and Violin with contemporary works written especially for that project. He recently played Schubert works in the larger Theresa L. Kaufmann Hall, but this Spring he returns to Buttenwieser to offer six Schubert sonatas that crown his œuvre in this genre. Each of the three evenings will feature two of the large-size sonatas, though judging from the tempi that Mr. Wosner adopted for D. 845 and D. 958, performed in the first of the programs, we are not exactly going to experience those “heavenly lengths” described by Schumann.

When some years ago I first heard Mr. Wosner play Schubert’s last Sonata – the one in B flat D. 960 – I was struck by his unusual, unconventional treatment of the score. This time the experience was very similar and there is a clear indication that he sees “his” Schubert through much less rosy glasses than the majority of performers. The fact that he starts to play almost immediately after seating himself at the piano, that his tempi are on the fast side, and that his sound is very precise, bright and clear, make a first impression of a somewhat brusque treatment of those dark, often dramatic, sometimes tinged with melancholy scores. But this is all a deceiving impression. What he does instead is set himself the task of peeling away all the patina of “tradition” while avoiding the tendency of so many Schubert players to delve into the composer’s troubled mind. There is no doubt in my mind that for Wosner the Schubert score is a tabula rasa: a page without a “tradition” written on it, a page on which he sees only notes and indications for dynamics, articulation and phrasing rather than pervasive thoughts of death. But he follows those marks faithfully and the results are remarkable. One of the salient features of all of his interpretations is masterful playing with silence. If I were to pick just one of Wosner’s most important characteristics as a player it would be this. He deftly avoids the trap so many pianists (and not only pianists) fall into by slowing down the pace when it strips the music of tension and drama. Just like the music of Haydn and his most gifted student, Beethoven, playing with time was immensely important to Schubert. Very often the music comes to a complete stand-still, leaving the listener disoriented. These pauses and silences are in their own way deafening. They worked wonderfully, among other moments, in the finale of the C minor Sonata.

Other features which I greatly admire in Shai Wosner’s playing are his sense of rhythm and use of the left hand. He is one of those rare pianists I don’t classify as right-handed. He clearly listens to the harmony and knows the importance of the left hand in marking out the bass line. A very strong sense of rhythm drives the music, sustains the momentum and in a way gives the music an orchestral character. Mr. Wosner’s chords have a special, unusual tightness and almost explode in the listener’s ears. He doesn’t overplay the dance element in the left hand accompaniment in the manner of Sir András Schiff and doesn’t allow for the prolonged sense of relaxation that some other great Schubert interpreters provide. Yet that approach brings dividends as well, for it displays another side of the composer of Erlking and presents him in a different, rarely encountered light.

One may presume that because of the energy, force and vigor in Wosner’s readings there’s no room for charm or elegance. Nothing is further from the truth. These qualities are just not exposed as fully as in the interpretations of other famed Schubertians. Wosner has an infinite variety of touch and – as demonstrated in his recent recitals – almost infallible fingers. The Schubert sonatas for piano and the piano part for the Fantasia in C Major for Piano and Violin are extremely difficult, though the difficulty is not as immediately obvious as in the works of Beethoven, Chopin or Schumann. It is an awkward, un-pianistic manner of writing and Wosner’s control and mastery of the music material are astounding. The virtuosity in the last, galloping movement of the C Minor Sonata, the command of the keyboard in this fiendishly difficult finale brought to mind a very old performance of Svyatoslav Richter, probably the only other player who could handle those hurdles with equal confidence. This hell-bend approach, the clarity, urgency and precision in the repeated notes and in the hand-crossing all left this listener in awe. This finale, similar to other “tarantella-like” finales (String Quartets in D minor and in G Major come to mind) is turbulent, menacing, frightening, possibly even a premonition of death, but I have always tried to push that thought away, believing the composer, conscious of his approaching death, would probably not have wasted his remaining time and resources on lessons in counterpoint.

Yes, the tempi in such segments as the Scherzo from the A minor Sonata, the aforementioned Finale Allegro in D. 958 and the opening movement from the same sonata, tended to sound unyielding, but the tight control and assuredness didn’t make them uncomfortable to the ear. There were innumerable moments of beauty, tenderness and simply amazing piano playing. There was only one encore, a lovely Hungarian Melody in B Minor, adopted from a longer 4-hand work, the Divertissement à la Hongroise.

At the end we heard a Schubert with a different, much angrier face and one was left, as it always with Wosner’s Schubert performances, with an unanswerable question: what if that was one of the faces and what if he would heartily approve of Shai Wosner approach to his works?

We have two more chances to hear this remarkable pianist in the remaining four sonatas: on May 4th Sonatas in D Major D. 850 and in A Major D. 959, and on May 11th, Sonatas in G Major D. 894 and in B flat D. 960. Both concerts start at 9PM. Come earlier. The wine is dispensed only before the concert!

Roman Markowicz



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