The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Pianist Shai Wosner talks about his new all-Schubert CD, emphasizing the dark side to Schubert and the diversity of styles from peasant dances to Mahler-like anxiety.

April 4, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Just over a year ago, the Israeli-American pianist Shai Wosner, who studied with Emanuel Ax, made his debut in Madison with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Andrew Sewell, in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4.

It was an impressive and poetic performance that announced Wosner as a major talent to watch. His career has continued to blossom, including an appearance on “A Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor. And I hope he will return to Madison soon, preferably for a solo recital or chamber music performance, though another concerto would be just fine.

Now the UK-based label Onyx has released his second CD. (His first recording, below, was an unusual and effective mix or splicing of Brahms’ Six Fantasies, Op. 116, and Schoenberg’s “Six Little Piano Pieces.”)

 Now Wosner has turned to Schubert, for which The New York tImes praised him when he performed it in Carnegie Hall. He plays an all-Schubert disc that includes both big well-known works and smaller more rarely heard works. The  recording is remarkable both for his interpretations and his tone. Wosner’s Schubert is always ear-catching and ear-holding — no small feat in familiar works.

 An avid Schubert fan and an avid Wosner fan, I was intrigued. So I asked and Wosner (below, in a photo by Marco Borggreve) generously agreed to talk, via email, about his new recording:

How and why did you choose the individual pieces you recorded? It strikes me as, an unusual but appealing and contrasting mix of short dances and the rarely heard and rarely performed but beautiful Hungarian Melody coupled to the big Sonatas on D Major and C major?

I started with the D Major Sonata which – I think – is one of Schubert’s absolute masterpieces. One of the things that stand out in it is the use Schubert makes of the folk style, a certain kind of idyllic tone that somehow permeates the sonata.

In that sense, it’s not unlike Beethoven’s D Major Sonata, Op. 28. Beethoven didn’t call it “Pastorale” himself, but it has somehow earned that subtitle for good reason. The Beethoven sonata has, for example, folk-like drones in the bass and bag-pipe-like tunes in the last movement. The Schubert work has an ebullient tarantella in the first movement, and ländler-like Scherzo, as well as many tunes that seem to evoke folk songs.

But the difference is telling. Like in many of Schubert’s works from that period, there is a dark, unsettling current under those beguiling melodies, which makes the folk element seem much more poignant than in the Beethoven, almost like a symbol for another existence that would never come back.

In fact, Schubert wrote it in one of the happiest moments of his life, while he was physically surrounded by gorgeous scenery touring the Austrian countryside. But the question whether that “dark side” – which erupts in the huge second movement – is biographical or not is secondary because it is works that resonate universally that tend to survive and become indispensable.

I think if the feeling was that he is really “describing” what he was going through at the time, it wouldn’t be the powerful piece that it is. And that tension between the idyllic tunes and the disturbing undercurrents in this piece appealed to me very much as a starting point.

For the same reason, I felt that the C Major Sonata would be a fitting complement. On one hand it’s a very difference piece, and yet it makes very significant use of a folk-like tune, a ländler, in its second movement. Of course, the folk theme ties the German Dances and the Hungarian Melody as well.

Can you tell us briefly about what you would like listeners to take from or pay attention to in each of the four works on the CD?

Six German Dances and the Hungarian Melody: Both the German Dances and the Hungarian Melody are simple pieces, likely written for the two girls Schubert was tutoring at the time, but there is also something poignant about them, particularly with the Hungarian tune.

Sonata in D Major: For me, the most striking element of this piece is that it’s almost as if it is standing on its head. The most active and exuberant movement is in the beginning and the piece ends with a ruminating rondo that sort of dissipates into silence. I feel that there is really a sense of a life’s-journey in this work and while there is a clear ending to it, it is also somewhat mysterious and leaves us wondering.

Sonata in C major “Reliquie”: It’s an interesting case for debate. Only the first two movements are finished, and yet they work as a monumental pair just like the “Unfinished” Symphony does. Can an unfinished work acquire another identity after the composer left it aside? What is it that gives it that identity? Is it merely tradition, or is it simply that whatever’s left of it is so powerful that it makes up for the fact that there was supposed to be more? It’s probably a bit of both. In other words, like Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, the end of the slow movement became an ending to the piece as if the music demanded it, not so much by the force of tradition but by the force of the music itself, thus probably giving the piece a different identity from what the composer had originally intended.

Critics have praised your new Schubert CD. What attracts you to Schubert? And are there other works by Schubert – perhaps the last three sonatas, the Impromptus or the Moments Musicaux  – you hope to record?

I certainly hope to have an opportunity to record more of Schubert’s music. There are many things that I find irresistible in his musical world – the searching quality, his unique sense of time, his courage in reaching for the darkest places, his sense of doubt.

It seems that a lot of musicians have turned to Schubert lately – Emanuel Ax, Paul Lewis, Jonathan Biss, the Takacs and Jerusalem Quartets and Imogene Cooper among others. Is there something in the today’s culture that makes us – or you — particularly receptive to Schubert?

I don’t know if there is something specific in today’s culture, which in case is better judged from a certain distance anyway. And clearly Schubert transcends any particular period or genre, just like Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin do.

But I do think that Schubert’s music had a narrow but profound influence on later generations, particularly on the music of Mahler (below, another composer whose songs are central to his output), which has a lot of Schubertian elements in it, and through it on to Berg and beyond.

I think the anxiety that we associate with some of the modernists and expressionists has a lot in common with the anxiety that can be found in some of Schubert’s works (and not only the late ones), particularly when Schubert juxtaposes the idyllic and the anxious. Maybe the distant, seemingly-naive ländler of the second movement of the C Major Sonata isn’t all that far-off from the offstage lilting piano tunes of Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1?

Schubert has been traditionally identified with a songful lyricism. And while I hear a lot of that in your performances, I also hear a new muscularity in your interpretation and in some of the others I mentioned above. Beyond Schubert’s admiration of Beethoven, is there some reason why our view of Schubert seems to be changing?

I don’t know. I think it’s natural that appreciation for an artist’s work changes over time and it doesn’t necessarily mean people like it more or less. For example, a composer’s work can suddenly seem different because of changes in the way his or her works are being performed, or because different pieces become more prominent.

Schubert himself is a good example, because for many years after his death he was still primarily regarded as a song composer and gradually his larger works assumed a more central role in the appreciation of his music. Or Brahms, for example, who was famously considered a conservative, even by his admirers and still in his lifetime while Schoenberg famously argued the exact opposite decades later.

I think while the songs are certainly one of the building blocks of his language, there are other important elements as well. In instrumental works, more than the song-quality perhaps, there is often a rather symphonic sensibility, even in the sonatas and chamber works, as reflected in the grand scale of many of his movements, the extended developments.

Perhaps the common thread through all of these is the idea of the journey, whether in a short song, or a big song-cycle (the Winter’s Journey) or one of the expansive structures such as in the late quartets.

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