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Music review: Superb Schubert from Shai Wosner

Shai Wosner
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

Schubert's music is in some ways a shadowy alternative to Beethoven's. His characteristic voice is ruminative and expansive - even unpredictably moody - where that of his older and much-revered contemporary is boldly heroic.

Shai Wosner's superb piano recital in Berkeley's Hertz Hall on Sunday afternoon, presented by Cal Performances, offered an immersion into Schubert's unique sensibility. In performances of two of the composer's sonatas and his Three Piano Pieces, D. 946, Wosner gave full voice to the Schubertian world - in particular his elastic sense of time, in which simple musical ideas can balloon to take up vast spaces without losing their identity.

The key, as Wosner lost no time in demonstrating, is to keep both the big picture and the finest details of texture and phrasing in view at all times. In the second of the Three Piano Pieces, for example, a small crystalline phrase gradually takes on more substance and emotional weight, as if the listener were zooming in on the music through some sonic microscope.

Wosner delivered this with a practically flawless balance of clarity and urgency, revealing all the emotional heft that lurks within the music's limpid harmonies. He did something similar in the finale of the A-Major Sonata, D. 664, giving the movement a full measure of grace and high spirits while probing for a deeper eloquence.

But the afternoon's great achievement came after intermission, with a noble and often fearless performance of the B-Flat Sonata, D. 960. Listeners and commentators often latch onto the first movement of this sonata, whose main theme is interrupted by an inexplicable and ominous low rumble that Schubert takes the rest of the movement to work through. Wosner traced that argument with impressive dexterity, putting the movement's various pauses and dislocations into context.

But for me, the point of this sonata is the slow movement, one of Schubert's vast three-part structures that returns to its starting point after a wrenching central transformation. Wosner's playing in the first section was admirably still-voiced, the tolling rhythms infused with a slight sense of apprehension; the return, with the same music now ornamented and indelibly altered, was subtle and gorgeous.

Wosner brought out the wit in Schubert's finale, with its peremptory call to attention that keeps interrupting the proceedings, and finished up with a lovely encore of Schubert's "Hungarian Melody," D. 817. The afternoon's only disappointment was "Idyll and Abyss: Six Schubert Reminiscences," by the usually brilliant German composer Jörg Widmann; these miniatures were snippets of Schubert and quasi-Schubert overlaid in the most obvious way with a few misty textures and dissonant clusters.