Israeli born piano virtuoso Shai Wosner is one of the rising young performers on the Classical musical horizon. He was a resident as one of the BBC’s New Generation Artists. His biography page lists appearances with major orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductors like James Conlon, Daniel Barenboim, and Zubin Mehta. Musicians he has worked with include Pinchas Zukerman, Lynn Harrell, and Jamie Laredo. He is clearly a performer to be reckoned with, so it is with some anticipation that we look to his recently released readings of Brahms and Schonberg on the Onyx label.
In a sense the CD is something of a concept album in part intended to show the similarities between two seemingly very different composers, the Romantic and the Modernist. Wosner says in the album notes: “Although they seem to belong to opposite ends of the musical pantheon, closer examination of their work reveals profound connections in their musical thinking and perception.” Both see themselves as building on the work of those who have gone before them; they, and Wosner along with them, see their work as evolutionary.
The arrangement of the work on the album in reverse chronological order beginning with the Schonberg Suite for Piano, op. 25 (1921-23) and ending with the Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, op. 24 (1861), with Brahms’ 7 Fantasies, op. 116 (1892) interspersed with Schonberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, op. 19 (1911) between the two is perhaps odd at first glance. If one wants to illustrate an evolutionary progression, it would seem to make sense to start at the beginning and work forward. On the other hand, it would make just as much sense to take a look at the final product first, so that influences and building blocks from earlier work might be made evident. Perhaps it is merely six of one, half dozen of the other. It is, at any rate, quite an interesting approach to the music.
Interspersing the Brahms and the Schonberg pieces, however, is a much more unusual if not revolutionary approach to showing musical evolution. Although not quite a Classical mash-up, juxtaposing the two differing styles so closely does have the effect of highlighting whatever common elements they may have. Moreover the delicacy of Wosner’s playing makes for wonderful listening. The very short Schonberg pieces, some under a minute and none longer than a minute and 43 seconds, mesh so well with the Brahms, that the casual listener might well be forgiven for not realizing that these were two separate compositions.
Schonberg’s Suite for the Piano is the first of his published works utilizing his famous twelve tone scale, a technique in which each of the notes “of the chromatic scale were given similar importance.” While the piece is unquestionably a landmark of modernism in music, critics have noted that it does have elements that harken back to the past. Each of the five sections is given a name that looks back in time — Prelude, Gavotte-Musette, Intermezzo, Minuet-Trio, Gigue. When asked if these titles were clues to the music, Schonberg was supposed to have said he would just as soon have called them exercises. Whatever they’re called, Wosner has a fine feel for the music.
The Handel Variations and Fugue provide a nice opportunity for the pianist to work in the more traditional mode. While the piece looks back to the Baroque, it does so by developing these older musical ideas for the modern ear, once again demonstrating the thesis underlying the album’s concept. There are a good many performances of this piece available on YouTube, so listeners can make their own comparisons, but Wosner’s playing while perhaps not quite as crisp and dynamic as some in the opening thematic statement quickly captures the spirit of the work.
All in all this is an album that takes a thoughtful look at the music and renders it with skill, charm, and passion. There will be more to come from Shai Wosner, and I, for one, look forward to it.