Impromptu = Impromptus by SCHUBERT, CHOPIN, BEETHOVEN, DVORAK, IVES, LISZT, and GERSHWIN – Shai Wosner – Onyx 4172, 74:43 (4/7/17) ****:
Imagining a posthumous gathering of improvisational geniuses jamming on varying notions of the impromptu.
As an introduction to his recording Impromptu, Shai Wosner invites us to consider what would happen “if we got together Schubert, Chopin, Ives, Liszt, Dvorak, Gershwin and Beethoven for a posthumous jam session.” My hope would be that Chopin and Schubert would play and the rest would listen, especially if it were late at night. Shai Wosner has arranged otherwise. However, Schubert will take up half the recital with the four Impromptus from D935 set up at equal distances between the nine pieces by the other composers. Mr. Wosner acknowledges that the form of the impromptu resists easy description but that it typically represents a lack of formality and is “set up as an intimate, immediate and very personal gesture towards the listener.” If improvisation is also of the essence, then we have surely gathered the right crowd, for they are the undisputed giants.
Shai Wosner has received accolades for his Schubert. Taking all four impromptus together, I can see why. He has a sure command of the flow of these pieces, an immaculate tone favoring the quiet, and an articulation that is in a class by itself. He takes great relish in the locked-hands staccatos and, in general, likes sharp edges and velocity. On just one or two occasions, the technical display comes at the expense of the meaning of the music, or perhaps it is just the strain of the effort to find a new meaning.
I was most keen to hear the Ives improvisation following Schubert. And indeed, it was a perfect palate cleanser. A tentative subject gives way, suddenly, to a number of almost random cluster- chords and then abruptly silences itself. At 53 seconds, it is bafflingly short. So puzzled was I that I immediately turned to the second Ives piece and found it to be of the same shape and dimension. Perhaps the unexpected abbreviation of the thing is part of the joke. I suspect it will send many listeners searching to uncover the whole of Ives miniatures for piano.
Dvorak’s Impromptu in D minor follows, and we hope for a dreamy lyric like the adagio from the Dumky Trio. Instead, we get something very much like a Landler or Mazurka. Wosner makes the most of the clever variations of the waltz and the spirited tempo shifts, but the piece does not attain to the finest of this great composer’s inventions.
We find ourselves at a key moment in musical history with the Gershwin Impromptu in Two Keys, the bridge from Ravel to Jazz. The languid theme plays against new harmonic notions and modulations that recall Schubert on one hand but, also, point ahead to Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. At two and a half minutes, it is all too brief a repose and delectation.
Finally, Chopin arrives with the Impromptu in A flat Op. 29, the first of three Chopin pieces, a self-enclosed world, aesthetically assured and immediately on the level with the famous Schubert pieces. There is nothing but musical perfection here, but the later two works Op. 36 in F-Sharp and the G flat Op. 51 piece are even more glorious. It is obvious to me that Shai Wosner could become one of the greatest Chopin exponents. And it it at this point of pure sonic ravishment that we stop to admire the outstanding sound quality of the instrument perfectly captured by the inspired technicians at ONYX.
Liszt was the most famous improviser of his day and it is only fitting to visit his Impromptu-Nocturne. A most compelling expression of shadowy lucubrations, it tells us that this jam session is very late at night. Following the third Schubert work, Beethoven arrives with the Fantasy in G Op. 77. It is a long work filled with dazzling runs and musical athleticism but is surprisingly inert and directionless. Perhaps Shai Wosner asserts too much in the technique department, but the velocity and articulation make the variations heavier rather than lighter. If Chopin is in the room, in would confirm him in his skepticism about the heroic temper in music. One wonders if this justly neglected piece by the Great One might have been switched out for Ligeti etude or something by Debussy, composers more attuned to our pianist’s sensibility.
The penultimate Ives piece is one minute of pure magic. The whole ends with the radiant Schubert Impromptu in F minor by our headliner. By now, we had better be used to the tart articulation of Wosner, for it is more than ever on display here. Still, Wosner’s Schubert convinces in the end. Our jam session ends and Chopin and Schubert share first honors, while Ives gets a general commendation and is enjoined to either write more or longer improvisations. Liszt, who is still at the piano, is especially encouraging “Charles, a minute is nothing, I can play for hours,” he says. This is a great recital and introduction to a major piano talent. It comes highly recommended.