A Schubert Buffet
Washington Irving High School
Franz Schubert: Impromptus, D. 935 – Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Major (“Gasteiner”), D. 850
Charles Ives: Third Improvisation for Piano
Antonín Dvorák: Impromptu in D minor, B. 129
George Gershwin: Impromptu in Two Keys
Fryderyk Chopin: Impromptu in A-flat major, Opus 29 – Impromptu in F-sharp major, Opus 36
Shai Wosner (Pianist)
S. Wosner (© Courtesy of the Artist)
“When I sing of love, it turns to sorrow. When I sing of sorrow, it turns to love.”
That splendid young Israeli pianist Shai Wosner has been lauded for his handling of Franz Schubert, and indeed, last night’s Schubert-predominating program, he produced some lovely sounds. In fact, his deft handling of the Steinway transcended the vacuous-sounding auditorium of the Washington Irving School and produced a plethora of colors. Colors which Schubert could only have dreamed about with one of his borrowed wooden-framed piano with its thin keys and buckskin-covered hammers.
Then again, one must ask whether Mr. Wosner’s grand playing on a grand piano with mountain-scoped octaves and volcanic eruptions really did Schubert credit. That, though, must be saved for later.
This wasn’t actually a Schubert recital, sad to say. The second half was the mighty D Major Sonata. But the opening half had not only Schubert’s epic-sized four Impromptus, but a septet of impromptus by other composers.
Rather than playing the Schubert works in succession, Mr. Wosner broke them up with Chopin, Gershwin, Dvorák and 53 seconds of Charles Ives. Whatever his point was, some of us resented the disconnect. Schubert’s Impromptus do have so many wondrous melodies that one can’t quite keep them in the mind. But simultaneously, they form a diary of the composer’s moods, with each page revealing more and more about Schubert’s musical mind itself.
The successes varied, though Mr. Wosner, last night (as in previous performances) , shows that he is a deft, colorful, intelligent and forceful (if too forceful) performer. His work with Jennifer Koh shows him the most scrupulous accompanist. (And the picture above hopefully will inspire him to try Winterreise with an up-and-coming singer.)
Last night, Mr. Wosner did use the occasion to show the facets of the composer. And I use that word “facet” as simulacra for diamond facets, since his colors of the opening Schubert F Minor Impromptu were both sensitive and dazzling. He was even more impressive in the A Flat Impromptu. The music is so exquisite that one felt he might use the notes to show off his mighty technical prowess. But no, he played it with simplicity with impeccable execution of those rapid figurations.
One was duly impressed, even moved by his handling of the architecture, the tones, those excruciating octave runs which he made seem so simple.
What was missing in the Schubert, both the Impromptus and the later Sonata was the Schubert quote shown above. I heard the very great pianist., I missed the poor, tender, wistful dreaming Schubert.
Still, one had to be impressed by the rare Dvorák Impromptu. It isn’t great Dvorák–seeming even more minor after the great Schubert. But Mr. Wosner played the waltz and its variations with a sprightly touch. Less memorable was another rare work, Gershwin’s Impromptu in Two Keys, actually written on the staff in single key (D flat). When a Cowell or Ives has a polytonal work, we feel it, we are baffled and delighted by it. Gershwin, though, was such a stunning pianist, that the Mr. Wosner’s insouciant performance–while appropriate–was a wee bit dreary.
For reasons known to himself, Mr. Wosner played only a single Ives Improvisation (I think it was the Third), and this was the only actual improvisation in the lot. Ives had walked into a recording studio, inprovised (absolutely brilliantly) and then said, “Oh, I’ll let those audio geniuses Cowell and Slominsky write down the notes.”
Which they did. And Mr. Wosner played 53 fascinating seconds of it.
The Chopin varied. His First Impromptu was sheer showoff. And yes, not a mistake was made in the lot. Nor did I feel any structure, any breathing. The Opus 36 Impromptu was Wosner at his most sensitive, playing as if he cared more about the music than his fantastic hands.
The second half was devoted to Schubert entirely. First, the D Major Sonata and later, two encores, the slow movement from the D. 664 Sonata and the Hungarian march better known in the transcription for two pianos.
I had particular problems with the Sonata. There was no doubt Mr. Wosner loves the composer, he has the chops to make the most difficult passages like child’s play. But, as in the Chopin, he sometimes let his genius overcome his music. I was stunned by his velocity, his almost insane rush to make a plethora of statements and then get on with it. Impressive it certainly was, though I wanted more breathing than massive heaving.
The second movement was–in this person’s opinion–unforgivable. Those first four notes are the apotheosis of longing, nostalgia, and the prospects of endless musical weaving. Mr. Wosner took Schubert’s Con moto direction too literally. Those first notes were played staccato, they marched along happily, pleasantly, without a thought of the reveries to come.
It was idiosyncratic Schubert, and Mr. Wosner deserves to play it his own way. But after, I had to return to recordings of Schiff and Brendel to hear the sentiment beneath the skin.
The final two movements were splendid. Bravura movements, marvelous fingering, and the right naivité for the opening and end of the Rondo. This was Wosner at his finest. He does have a penchant for turning bravura moments into ostentation. But at his best, he has the sensitivity, the dextrous touch and the intelligence to make his music come vividly alive.
CODA: Until last night, my ignorance of the People’s Symphony Concerts at Washington Irving High School and Town Hall was profound! Their artists include Feltman and Widmann the Dover and Juilliard String Quartet, Kirill Gerstein, Leon Fleisher and far far more...
The prices are one-third of those in regular concert halls, and the programs are most imaginative. Go, please to www.pscny.org for complete information.