United States 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
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.