A Shai Wosner Recital of the Profoundest Mastery


 Schubert, Chopin, Haydn, Ligeti, and Beethoven: Shai Wosner (piano), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1.5.2015 (BJ)

Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 935
interleaved with
Chopin: Impromptus No. 1, Op. 29, and No. 3, Op. 51
Haydn: Fantasia (Capriccio) in C major, Hob. XVII:4
Ligeti: Capriccio No. 1
Haydn: Capriccio in G major on Acht Sauschneider müssen sein, Hob. XVII:1
Ligeti: Capriccio No. 2
Beethoven: Sonata in C major, Op. 2 No. 3


I have heard some remarkable pianists in my time: Richter (on a number of occasions) including a Schubert sonata performance in Aldeburgh, and a valedictory recital in his last years in the darkened Amsterdam Concertgebouw with a stunning Appassionata Sonata; Brendel, pairing Beethoven’s Opus 111 with the Diabelli Variations in London; and Barenboim in Edinburgh, bringing a magical touch to some Schubert Impromptus. Then there was Ohlsson, flirting no less magically on the very edge of audibility in a Seattle Chopin recital; Paul Hersh—you may not know his name, but he belongs in this exalted company—weaving a spell with a program of “Night Music” at the Olympic Music Festival in Quilcene, Washington; and Moravec in Carnegie Hall, Utrecht, Prague, Paris, and the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where he played Schubert’s last sonata.

Yes, I realize what a lucky fellow I am to have known such riches. And now, not to beat about the bush, comes Shai Wosner with a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital that places him firmly in the ranks of such masters. Born in Israel and now living in the United States, he is still some way short of his 40th birthday, but in both the calmly affable dignity of his stage presence and in his playing, maturity is conjoined in equal measure with charm and the most profound musical talent. To some members of a Philadelphia audience, his way of starting to play in the very act of sitting down at the piano may have looked familiar: it is just the way that Riccardo Muti, music director here for twelve years, used to launch into the music as he stepped onto the podium.

Wosner has never yet performed with Muti, but I think they would understand each other, and not just in so relatively trivial a regard. It is the utter commitment to searching out, in the works he plays, meanings that in too many performances remain hidden and unrealized that brackets the pianist with the equally questing conductor.

Russell Sherman, one of the greatest American pianists of our time, in his wonderful book Piano Pieces, enunciates the principle that, if you are not prepared to take risks, there is no point in being a performer. Throughout this ingeniously planned program, Wosner took every risk in the book, and a number from outside it, and made the results sound at once fresh and inevitable.

His Schubert illuminated Chopin and his Chopin Schubert, even if the two Chopin pieces he inserted into Schubert’s D. 935 group do not quite reach the level of the older composer’s masterpieces. At the other end of the program came a performance of Beethoven’s early but similarly masterly C-major Sonata in which all the signs were right from the very first measures: in welcome contrast to the rhythmic inflexibility that used to be thought a prerequisite in performing “the Classics,” Wosner stretched the silence between the two statements of the principal motif by just a hair, and all through the work his rhythm continued to be at once flexibly nuanced and unfailingly lucid and stable (or, as Richter’s teacher Henri Neuhaus described his most famous pupil’s rhythm, “at the same time perfectly strict and perfectly free”).

Bringing back to my mind another of those touchstone performances in the distant past, John Ogdon’s of this same sonata almost fifty years ago, Wosner’s way with the work laid equally bare its zest, its gentleness, and its wit.

Wit, meanwhile, was delightfully evident in the two Haydn pieces that he alternated with two Capriccios by Ligeti immediately after intermission—all four of them pieces that I was hearing, with delight, for the first time. The Ligeti pieces are in the composer’s early style, more instinctive that doctrinaire, and the second of them in particular gave Wosner a chance to show quite what staggering resources of tone he has at his disposal: this was no surprise to me, since I had heard him a few years ago rising to the challenge of even more staggeringly and monumentally sonorous music by the gifted Philadelphia-area composer Michael Hersch. Incidentally, the topic of extreme loudness emboldens me to put forward my solitary stricture about Wosner’s playing. In the Beethoven particularly, it seemed to me that some of the fortissimos were a tad excessive for a room of the Benjamin Franklin Hall’s intimate size.

The two Haydn pieces are essentially jeux d’esprit, jocular and even laugh-out-loud funny; and it was clever of Wosner to have programmed them alongside the Beethoven, for their purely humorous exploitation of crossed-hands technique threw light on the quite different lyrical artistic purpose with which Beethoven uses the same resource in the sonata.

As encore, Wosner gave us yet another piece I hadn’t heard before: Schubert’s Ungarische Melodie (Hungarian Melody), a beautiful meditation that dates from as late as 1824, brought a triumphant evening to an agreeably calm and thoughtful close.

Bernard Jacobson

Print Friendly



  1. Danielle Orlando says:

    Hello Bernard,
    Thanks for telling me about this! So nice to see you and your wife again.

Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews


Season Previews

  • NEW! English National Ballet Announces its 2018-19 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! The Cleveland Orchestra’s 2018-19 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Booking Open for Longborough Festival Opera 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Additional Tickets Now Available for Nevill Holt Opera’s Le nozze di Figaro __________________________________
  • NEW! Leeds Lieder’s Four-Day Celebration of Art Song in April 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! World Premiere by Novaya Opera of Pushkin – The Opera in the Theatre in the Woods __________________________________
  • NEW! Dartington International Summer School & Festival’s 70th __________________________________
  • UPDATED! The Glyndebourne Opera Cup and Glyndebourne in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! LA Opera’s 2018/19 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Buxton Festival 2018 and its New CEO __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music at the Barbican in 2018/19 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Piccadilly Chamber Music Series in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera and More in Buenos Aires in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Gloucester Choral Society’s Hubert Parry’s Centenary Celebrations in May 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Bampton Classical Opera in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! The 2018 Lucerne Summer Festival __________________________________
  • NEW! Contemporary Music from Manchester’s Psappha in 2017-18 __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

  • NEW! Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella in Cinemas on 15 May with Live Q&A __________________________________
  • NEW! Newly Discovered Song by Alma Mahler to be Performed in Oxford and Newbury __________________________________
  • NEW! A Q&A WITH ANDREA CARÈ AS HE RETURNS TO COVENT GARDEN AS DON JOSÉ __________________________________
  • NEW! Rafael de Acha Introduces Some of Cincinnati’s New Musical Entrepreneurs __________________________________
  • NEW! HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • NEW! ENB’s 2018 Emerging Dancer will be Chosen at the London Coliseum on 11 June __________________________________
  • NEW! Akram Khan’s Giselle for ENB Can be Seen in Cinemas from 25 April __________________________________
  • NEW! BARRY DOUGLAS IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN __________________________________
  • UPDATED! SOME OF OUR REVIEWERS CHOOSE THEIR ‘BEST OF 2017’ __________________________________
  • Archives by Week

    Archives by Month

    Search S&H