Shai Wosner: Brahms and Schoenberg

Shai Wosner
International Record Review

By Raymond S. Tuttle

'Interweaving music by Brahms and Schoenberg', one reads on the inlay card, 'pianist Shai Wosner explores the deep connections between their sound-worlds, from the grand gestures of their larger works to the abstract introspection of their shorter pieces.' I was initially, I must admit, a little sceptical about this juxtaposition. What could these composers have to say to one another? My scepticism was heightened when I observed that Wosner, not content simply to juxtapose these two composers, had gone so far as to shuffle the deck, actually alternating Brahms's seven Op. 116 Fantasies with Schoenberg's Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, What this brought to mind was a concert in New York, many years ago now, in which Chopin's 24 Préludes were paired with the corresponding (by key) preludes from Book 1 of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. (It was released on Labor Records LAB7017-2, now deleted.) That concert, however, required two pianists (João Carlos Martins in the Bach and Arthur Moreira-Lima in the Chopin). Also, beautiful as the music was, I am not sure that any kind of 'deep connection', let alone synergy, was demonstrated by the pairings, although the two Brazilian pianists earned high marks for creativity.

Now here comes Wosner, and he is utterly convincing all by himself. (He is also given thrilling support by Onyx's engineering team.) In the booklet note, he writes that 'the sets of short pieces [by Brahms and Schoenberg] share an aire of ruminative but forward-looking experimentation'. For the pianist, these 'two extraordinarily learned composers with an acute sense of music history...had a complex relationship wit the past.' This is even more obvious in the larger works. Schoenberg's Op. 25 Suite, his first 12-tone work, has backward-looking movement titles (Gavotte, Menuet, Gigue, etc.). Furthermore, the Suite is based on Bach's musical signature: B flat, A, C and B natural. As for Brrahms, he was attracted to a theme from Handel's Harpsichord Suite No. 1 not just because it was fertile territory but also because of his cholarly interest in music from the Baroque era. 

Paradoxically, the alternation of shorter pieces allows them to assert their individuality at the same time that iit underlines their connections with one another. If, for even a very brief moment, one is cought asking oneself, 'Wait, is this Brahms or Schoenberg?', then Wosner's provocative idea is valid. I suspect that Schoenberg's Op. 19 is almost always played as a set, but there is no law that says Brahms's Op. 116 must be treated in that way. In fact, we know that Brahms himself played only the first three pieces during a concert in Vienna in 1893, and then only the last of them at another concert some three weeks later.

Wosner, who resembles a cross between Harry Potter and Evgeny Kissin, was born in Israel; his teachers have included Emanuel Ax at the Juilliard. In his mid-thirties, he is, by classical music's standards,still a young man. Indeed, his playing displays the brio and risk-taking associated with youth, but these are by no means reackless or immature readings. Do you expect to enjoy Schoenberg? Rather than making the Suite into another dose of castor oil, Wosner sweeps the listener along with his enthusiasm. Maurixio Pollini is more aristocratic in this repertory, buut it is Wosner who will make you smile. The Sechs kleine Klavierstücke are presented as tiny mysteries; you'll be so intrigued you will forget that this  music is 'difficult'.

The yoked Brahms Fantasies, played with imagination but with no untoward sentimentality, share Schoenberg's virtues in that they are made to seem rare, in their cryptic communicativeness, but never precious. As for the Handel Variations, this set is an unmitigated joy in Wosner's hands. Again, this is youthful playing, fuull of high spirits and enthusiasms, yet not shallow or noisy. Unlike Idil Biret, for example, he eschews a prim and mannered staccato when station Handel's theme. His timing for the Variations os 26'35", which is comparable to many, but it does not reflect that he takes many variations at a healthy clip and others (for example, the ninth) rather slowly.

I have not enjoyed a new piano recital as much in quite some time!