The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Pianist Shai Wosner helps the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra close its winter season with triumphant Beethoven that is both elegant and aggressive

April 14, 2011
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Perhaps you prefer your Beethoven edgy. muscular and aggressive, spiky and in your face.

Or perhaps you prefer your Beethoven more poetic and elegant.

Both approaches can be justified and both are done.

Luckily, you could have had it both ways if you went to the closing concert of Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s winter Masterworks concerts last Friday night in Overture Center’s Capitol Theater (below). It was an astonishing and impressive event for both its beauty and its drama.

The guest pianist was the up-and-coming Israeli-born Shai Wosner, who soloed in the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 – perhaps Beethoven’s most lyrical piano concerto.

Wosner (below, in a photo by Marco Borggreve) proved a master at shading his performance and making it his own through his interpretation. Almost two centuries after the concerto was premiered, Wosner found new things to say about it, often through restraint.

His articulation in the concerto’s extended passagework was nothing short of amazing for its evenness and glowing tone as well as its improvisatory feeling. Wosner’s virtuosic technique was always put at the service of the music. I was also quite impressed by Wosner’s left hand and his ability to bring out bass themes and harmonic patterns that often go overlooked.

So it should have been no surprise, then, that when the audience demanded an encore, Wosner turned into a jazzer – though in Beethoven’s day, “classical” performers usually improved their own cadenzas — and offered a fetching, on-the-spot, ballad-type improvisation on themes from the concerto he had just performed.

The only qualm I had concerned the piano, which at times seems tinny and harsh in the treble range, almost fighting Wosner’s fluid playing.

But enough got through to tell you that Wosner is a young pianist to keep your eye on. His debut CD (below, on the Onyx label) of Brahms and Schoenberg is first-rate; and his all-Schubert follow-up CD, to be released this fall, should also be a stunner. And he mentioned, at a post-concert reception that a Schumann-Bach program might be in the works – which would be a great testament to this thoughtful pianist’s original approach to programming.

For his part, WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below) brought the concert to a propulsive conclusion. He delivered a sharply etched, powerfully performed Symphony No. 7, which is Beethoven’s most consistently dynamic symphony and was the one that first established him as the most important living composer of his day.

It was hard to find a weak section of the chamber orchestra, which has never sounded better to The Ear. The winds and especially brass shined brightly, and the strings played tightly and crisply, with great gradations, subtle dynamics and outstanding tone and pitch.

The familiar second movement was taken at the faster pace it should be – not at the slower, more funereal tempo some maestros prefer. (At his last concert, for example, Leonard Bernstein turned it into a heavy funeral march for himself.)

Most of all, there was great transparency – in part a function of a chamber orchestra (below) rather than a full symphony, in part of function of Sewell’s absolute mastery of the score and control of the players. You could hear Beethoven bouncing various motifs and parts around among the various sections. It is an intricate work, but one that Sewell conducted impressively from memory, without a score.

One other thing should not be lost in so much Beethoven: The importance of the concert’s first piece, “Orawa” by the Polish composer by the contemporary Polish composer Wojciech Kilar (below).

Sewell is well known for his penchant to find little known works, old and new, and champion them.

And this work was a perfect choice as a set up or curtain-raiser. It possessed folk elements, harmonies and rhythmic drones, strongly enough to suggest the Romanian or Hungarian folk songs and dances of Bela Bartok, or even an orchestrated version of some of Chopin’s more exotic and forward-looking mazurkas.

But it was treated in a kind of hypnotic Minimalist style that reminded one of Philip Glass, John Adams or Steve Reich.

The Ear found it a perfect set up for the Beethoven piano concerto. The Kilar repeated the same chords in an abrupt, almost most monotone manner; on the other hand, the opening of the Beethoven, done unusually with a solo piano passage, showed what shading can do to repeated chords.

In any case, the forceful Kilar piece is something that one of these summers should be played at Concerts on the Square. As contemporary music, the short and dramatic work has just that kind of crossover appeal.

And these days classical music can use all the appeal it can muster.

In fact, the WCO should be playing to full houses and should be performing programs twice. The economy may not be ready for that, but the WCO clearly is.

Bravos go to all who got it there.

Don’t trust me. Compare this review with one by John W. Barker of Isthmus:

What did you think of pianist Shai Wosner?

Of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Beethoven at its last concert?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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