In splendid recital, pianist Shai Wosner explores byways of Schubert’s work

Shai Wosner
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

There’s something at once revelatory and charming about a performer who becomes preoccupied with a particular composer, the way pianist Shai Wosner has with Schubert over the past five years or so. It means an airing for less familiar works that don’t generally get a lot of play, and it means that better-known music can come under fresh scrutiny — even when that music isn’t actually performed.

Both things happened on Sunday, Dec. 2, during Wosner’s magisterially fine all-Schubert recital in Berkeley’s Hertz Hall, presented by Cal Performances. Through a combination of canny programming and powerful, illuminating keyboard work, the young Israeli virtuoso shed new light — both direct and reflected — on the composer’s entire piano legacy.

The delights began with Wosner’s choice of repertoire, three of Schubert’s piano sonatas. Any music lover who hears “Schubert” and “three piano sonatas” in the same sentence immediately assumes that we’re talking about the composer’s three great last works in this form, written just months before his early death.

Instead, Wosner devoted his recital to the three sonatas that come before them in the catalog, pieces in which Schubert began to expand the scale of his musical thinking to fill the broad canvases that those final works would deploy. And to listen to them all in one sitting was to understand just how far back some of the composer’s final ideas extended.

The A-Minor Sonata, D. 845, for example, which opened the program in a performance of shadowy elegance, treads an elusive line between carefree melodic grace and ominous undercurrents. The writing is never less than buoyantly beautiful, but there are mysterious surprises throughout — a strange harmonic turn in the first movement, rhythmic asymmetries in the scherzo, a not-quite-motivated speeding up of the tempo at the end of the finale.

Wosner folded these oddities into the texture of the music with a showman’s ingenuity, making certain everyone heard them but (quite properly) couldn’t be entirely sure what to make of them. These are the sorts of enigmas that come into full flower in the late sonatas, presented here as if in embryonic form.

The two major-key sonatas, D. 850 in D and D. 894 in G, have other things in mind — not so much the insinuation of surprises as the establishment of full-length formal structures and the expansive harmonic fields to support them. In the D-Major Sonata, Wosner unleashed the bright chordal repetitions of the first movement with all the vigor of an outdoor jaunt, and followed the movement’s windy formal logic with a keenly thoughtful eye; the finale drew to a gorgeous close, as springy and dense as a bed of heather.

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