Shai Wosner offers a “jam session” of diverse improvisations by composers whose keyboard mastery shines through each selection.
Impromptu = SCHUBERT: Impromptu in F minor, D. 935, No. 1; Impromptu in B-flat Major, D. 935, No. 3; Impromptu in A-flat Major, D.. 935, No. 2; Impromptu in F minor, D. 935, No. 4; CHOPIN: Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 29; Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat Major, Op. 51; IVES: Impromptu for piano III; Impromptu for piano I; DVORAK: Impromptu in D minor; GERSHWIN: Impromptu in Two Keys; BEETHOVEN: Fantasy in G minor, Op. 77; LISZT: Impromptu (Nocturne) – Shai Wosner, piano – Onyx 4172, 74:43 (5/5/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:
Pianist Shai Wosner (b. 1976) explores the art of the improvisation, as inscribed by several composers who embrace a diversity of styles. Wosner credits his teacher Andre Hajdu with having instilled in him the love of spontaneous creation at the keyboard that assumes a telos all its own. Though certain such creations seem formless, they often reveal a ternary or rondo structure; and in some cases, such as the Beethoven Fantasia in G minor (1809), conceived for Muzio Clementi as a virtuoso vehicle, the result emerges as a compressed epic, with eight changes of key, three metrical shifts, and diverse tempo indications. So, after having auditioned Wosner’s reading of the sadly lyrical F minor Impromptu of Schubert, I immediately sought out Wosner’s reading of the Beethoven, my having been initiated into its virtues by the likes of Edwin Fischer, Artur Schnabel, and Rudolf Serkin.
Wosner manages both a lyrical and declamatory performance of this ambitious moment of Beethoven’s potent improvisational capacities—its only rival the opening sequence from the contemporary Choral-Fantasy, Op. 80—subjecting us to the battle between G minor and A-flat before the B-flat section in 6/8. The main theme seems almost placid, but its move into D minor becomes a 2/4 etude for the alternation of the hands. Syncopes and a modulation into A-flat ensues, with a bridge into D Major. An ever-various range of touches and dynamics surges forth, including some transparent harmonies in B Major. Broken octaves and deep bass chords emerge, Allegretto, then the musical line simultaneously leaps up and dives down. When C Major establishes itself, we think we are at peace; but no, Beethoven’s irony lands on the key of B Major, for a last jolt.
The two Charles Ives pieces confirm his iconoclast status, with the terse Improvisation III set in percussive clusters, while the Improvisation I moves slowly, much in the unnerving manner of Scriabin. The low chord at its conclusion might have been penned by Maxim Gorky for The Lower Depths. Wosner nicely juxtaposes the latter Ives with the spritely F minor Impromptu of Schubert, whose brittle, scherzando textures seem apt to be labeled Spanish, in the manner of fandango. Schubert, too, enjoys the occasional meander through a maze of keys as he moves to a fertile, resolute coda.The unique contribution of Antonin Dvorak, his 1883 Impromptu in D minor, a meditative, if quirky, ternary dance that often resembles a dumka or mazurka variant. The tempos shift, and the passing ornaments, trills, and arpeggios suggest a cross-bred meeting of Slovakia and Chopin. The bluesy Gershwin Impromptu in Two Keys—D Major and E-flat Major—enjoys a silky stride, a cosmopolitan confidence that French contemporaries Ravel and Poulenc would likely savor.
As a Chopin interpreter, Wosner certainly fulfills his task in a clean, polished style that well captures the breezy French salon atmosphere that occasionally swells into surpassing lyricism of the Bellini bel-canto arioso. The combination of passing grace notes and tempo rubato proves alluring. If the Op. 29 A-flat moves in glib song, the F-sharp minor, Op. 36 emerges in a more mysterious, perhaps Italianate ornamentation, at once intimate and beguiling—relish Wosner’s pearly play— in the manner of a barcarolle. Its middle section achieves a portly hauteur, a declamatory march that could easily have been incorporated into one of the heroic polonaises. The Chopin Op. 51 in G-flat Major, may well be the most byzantine, not only for its serpentine melodic line but for the ingenuity of Chopin’s late harmony. The chromatic line weaves a throaty song in barcarolle rhythm, and the bass harmonies ring beneath a gossamer treble. Mid-way, the piece seems to evolve into a meditative ballade, still exploiting the harmonic motions already established. The original line reappears, now fertile with enriched possibilities in what might have served for a movement in one of the sonatas, although the affect of the last pages plays like a passionate nocturne.
So far as “nocturnes” go, the Impromptu of Franz Liszt looks to his own Liebestraume and progressively forward to the world of Enrique Granados. The trills, bird calls, and liquid strumming in the keyboard produce their own magic, all based on an obsessive chord pattern that has completely kept us in thrall. Finally, the two remaining Schubert pieces: the lovely theme and variations in B-flat Major we know from Rosamunde, played with a surpassing and seamless quietude by Wosner. Doubtless, Mr. Wosner has heard Artur Schnabel or Claude Frank in this marvel. Its “heavenly length” depends on Wosner’s ability to maintain the lyrical tension and fleetness of touch throughout. The A-flat Major Impromptu proffers a light march theme and its variants, voiced in competing registers. Wosner can make even his staccato chords fluid, and his piano tone remains mellow and seductive, courtesy of producer Simon Kiln.
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