Shai Wosner makes big impression on the piano

07.11.11
Shai Wosner
The Register-Guard

By Terry McQuilkin

Every once in a while, one is lucky enough to attend a concert in which intelligent programing and brilliant music-making combine in such a way that the event remains in memory months later.

It’s been several hours — not months — since I attended Shai Wosner’s recital of solo piano works. But I’m reasonably certain that the impact on those of us in attendance at Friday evening’s Oregon Bach Festival concert in Beall Hall will last quite a while.

After striding on stage and bowing briefly, Wosner launched into George Frideric Handel’s Suite in B-flat, HWV 434, even before the welcoming applause had ceased. The short work ends with an Air and Variations, and the pianist dispatched that series of increasingly florid embellishments with confidence, clarity and forward motion.

The Israeli-born musician remained on stage and wasted no time in beginning Oliver Knussen’s Variations, Op. 24: a tightly constructed, seven-minute piece in which a series of short, connected variations all stem from a six-note set. Although Wosner brought out some wonderful textures and colors, I found the work rather cerebral and emotionally cold.

Knussen’s 1989 work, however, did provide an effective interlude between the Handel piece and Johannes Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, which uses the same melody as the earlier work.

Wosner brought out lyrical melodic lines lucidly and sensitively, and accompanying lines emerged with unusual clarity as well. The 25-minute piece offers a wide range of moods, textures and tempos, and the pianist highlighted the work’s contrasts effectively.

Wosner continued his exploration of variation form by turning to Ludwig van Beethoven’s infrequently played Six Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 34.

Unusual for its time, the successive variations are in different tempos, different meters and different keys, ultimately returning to the original key of F major. Wosner brought out the distinct traits of each variation, such as the refined elegance of the fourth variation or the solemn march-like character of the fifth.

About a second after playing the final soft, staccato F-major chords of Opus 34, Wosner began the descending F-minor triad that begins the next work on the program: Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”).

The segue was a programming coup de maître. Melodic figures in Opus 34 suggested figures in Opus 57, and the slow, extended coda to Opus 34 served as an ideal prelude to the “Appassionata,” the tempestuous outer movements of which frame an unpretentious set of variations.

The pianist delivered the variation movement with warmth and subtlety, while the two fast movements afforded him ample opportunities for muscular, dramatic playing; the heft of Wosner’s sound was certainly in evidence. Perhaps he exaggerated the contrasts between loud and soft, but he left no listener unengaged.

Many in the audience remember the New York-based pianist from last year’s festival, when he filled in, at very short notice, for an ailing Jeffrey Kahane, to great acclaim.

I doubt if any of his listeners were disappointed on Friday.