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Finding Brahms in Schoenberg

10.08.10
Shai Wosner
New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

“BRAHMS THE PROGRESSIVE” is the title of an insightful essay that Schoenberg first presented as a radio talk in 1933 in honor of the Brahms centenary. At the time to speak of Brahms as a progressive was counterintuitive. Brahms was a Romantic of course. But if anything, he was regarded as the Classicist among his generation of German Romantic composers.

Brahms had a musicological bent, did studies of Bach and Handel and brought attention to early Baroque and Renaissance composers. Yet he also saw the future. In his late works he anticipated the breakdown of tonality. In his important essay Schoenberg claimed Brahms as a model for his own blend of tradition and radicalism.

The links between these giants come through compellingly on the new recording of works by Brahms and Schoenberg by the excellent Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner (Onyx Classics 4055). He begins with Schoenberg’s Suite (Op. 25, 1921-23), the first complete Schoenberg piano work using the 12-tone technique from start to finish. The piece is Schoenberg’s homage to Bach’s keyboard suites, complete with prelude, gavotte, musette and gigue. Mr. Wosner ends the recording with Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, a formidable work requiring virtuosic technique, but also delightful, inventive music that at once celebrates and pokes fun at ornate Baroque styles.

At the center of this program Mr. Wosner offers a daring experiment. He plays Brahms’s Opus 116 Fantasies, a set of seven intermezzos and capriccios from 1892. But interspersed between the pieces he plays the very brief, grippingly compact miniatures of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces (Op. 19). He actually alternates the individual Brahms and Schoenberg works. And the experiment is fascinating. After a while you hardly notice the segues from Brahms’s searching, mystical pieces to Schoenberg’s aphoristic atonal miniatures. The composers seem like soulmates from a common musical realm.

In his 1933 lecture Schoenberg, sometimes playfully, asserted that audiences should not be snookered by the Classical trappings of Brahms’s symphonies and chamber works. To make the case for Brahms as a progressive, Schoenberg pointed to his use of irregular phrase lengths, his unorthodox approach to structure, his daring way of building phrases from fragments and motifs rather than complete melodic lines and, most of all, his extremely chromatic and experimental harmonic language.

Though Mr. Wosner’s recording gives support to Schoenberg’s thesis, there is nothing academic about the performances. He plays the Schoenberg suite with crispness and clarity. The Gavotte and the Musette dance and swing with appropriate Baroque energy. Except for the 12-tone language, these pieces truly evoke their sources. Yet Mr. Wosner also captures the modernist daring and path-breaking wildness of the music. When the music turns restless, he plays with infectious spontaneity, adjusting tempos at will. He also gives a joyous, technically assured account of Brahms’s exhilarating Handel Variations.

In the Brahms fantasies he brings sensitivity and elegance to the most atmospheric and elusive of the pieces (like the fragmented, self-contained Intermezzo in E minor, though you hesitate to assign a key to this harmonically radical music). It is stunning to hear the final juxtaposition, when Mr. Wosner moves from the agitated, tumultuous Capriccio in D minor, which ends the Brahms set, to the last Schoenberg miniature, a series of bell-like, pungently atonal chords played almost at a whisper, a piece Schoenberg wrote in 1911 after attending Mahler’s funeral.

There are liner notes by Mr. Wosner, whose ability to speak intelligently about music came through in a recent recital at Symphony Space. This is an inventively conceived and impressive recording.