pianist Shai Wosner would have you consider Schoenberg and Brahms as more
similar than we are led to expect. Both built upon the foundations laid by
earlier composers, evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and both learned to
distil the essence of their music into highly compact structures. Granted,
Schoenberg's music here is 12-tone while Brahms is writing in a far more
traditional idiom, and we tend to think of Schoenberg as an iconoclast and
Brahms a reactionary, if we are to believe Richard Wagner.
piano in Tel Aviv with Emanuel Krasovsky and theory, improvisation and
composition with André Hajdu before enrolling at the Julliard School under
Emanuel Ax. He lives now in New York and is active internationally as a soloist
and chamber musician.
Wosner has assembled two major works,
Schoenberg's Piano Suite, Opus 25 and Brahms' Handel
Variations, Opus 24 to bookend this recording. At the centre he
places two series of short piano pieces from the two composers, alternating
between them to make his point.
First, let me unscramble the eggs as it were, and
review the composers one at a time. Schoenberg's Suite for Piano Opus 25,
which comprises 5 dance-based movements, was his first complete composition in
the 12-tone method. Wosner is completely at home here and delivers a dramatic
and highly articulate performance which captures many different moods. Given
Wosner's strong rhythmic sense, the individual lines are easy to follow. The Opus
19 pieces are all very short but unhurried, painting very distinctive
crystalline structures in a bare handful of notes. Wosner is superb again here,
and this record will form an excellent introduction to Schoenberg for anyone
looking for a way in to 20th century classical music.
The Brahms is a different story. Wosner brings a
very strong technique to the task, but you cannot muscle your way through
Brahms. Sometimes less is more, and so it is with the Seven Fantasias, where
Gilels [DG 447446-2] shows the way. Gilels rarely put a foot wrong in my
opinion, but his Brahms is exceptional even by his own lofty standards. In his
hands these very advanced miniatures wrap their powerful outbursts in a long
poetic line, using color, attack and presence to create jewels out of each
movement and a unified conception from the seven movements. Wosner succeeds in
some movements, particularly the second, but overall he impedes the flow of the
music with his conspicuous point-making and agogic pauses. The same can be said
of his Handel Variations, where
the direct and passionate Idil Biret [Naxos8.550350] provides an inexpensive but
highly acclaimed alternative. Biret is perhaps a little heavy-handed at times,
but never obscures the larger scale structure by lingering on details.
Wosner succeeds brilliantly in his stated goal by juxtaposing and intermingling the shorter works of these two composers. I suspect he plays the Brahms the way he does to highlight the similarities between the two composers, discarding some of the poetry and flow to make his point.
The recording was made in the Friedberg Hall in Baltimore in January 2010. Onyx provides immaculate sound for these recordings, with a silent background and a wide dynamic range to highlight the pianist's virtuosity.
Performance: Brahms Schoenberg