Shai Wosner — Schubert Later Piano Sonatas — Onyx

by | Mar 26, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata No. 16 in A minor, D, 845; Piano Sonata No. 18 in G Major, D. 894; Piano Sonata No. 19 in C minor, D. 958; Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major, D. 960 – Shai Wosner, piano – Onyx 4217 (2 CDS) TT: 148:04 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Shai Wosner extends his survey (rec. 10-15 July 2018) of the Schubert piano sonatas, here exploring the works that appeared both during and after the composer’s lifetime, beginning with the bleakly lovely Sonata in A minor from 1825. The opening movement, Moderato, moves in the manner of a martial improvisation: the initial staccato pattern and chordal response permeates the movement, which shades and dynamically alters the theme, including some insistent, manic outcries. The last page borders on explosive anguish, which Wosner manages to keep from devolving into pure percussion.

The tender Andante con moto provides us a rarity among Schubert’s sonatas, a lyrical theme and variations, here realized with a direct simplicity and genuine sense of intimacy. Besides owning a sense of the militant temper, Schubert indulges in passing counterpoints and cross-rhythms that set a task to the performer. The music often indulges the keyboard in sonority for its own sake, moving in the manner of his equally infectious laendler for piano.  Whatever storms and stresses the music conveys dissipate by the time of the last chords. The quicksilver Scherzo: Allegro vivace – Trio: Un poco piu lento moves with a light hand in Wosner’s rendition, playful with a lingering wisp of tragedy. The Trio section feels suffused with nostalgia, the phrases balanced by a kind of tolling bell. The last movement, Rondo: Allegro vivace emits a compulsive, running figure, a river of sound that occasionally erupts into a protestation against fate. Amidst the mortal storm moments of light shine through, but the lingering clouds of the opening movement cast a pall that consolations cannot mitigate.

The 1826 Sonata in G Major, “Phantasie-Sonata,” Robert Schumann called “Schubert’s most perfect work, in both form and conception.” Wosner’s lyrical, relaxed approach to the expansive opening Molto moderato cantabile movement in rounded, breathed phrases most immediately had my comparing him to Wilhelm Kempff.  It was Liszt who designated the work as a “fantasy,” a hybrid piece lying between the sonata’s formal logic and the fantasy’s improvised character. The persistent alternations of major and minor tonalities create a restless – even if songful – sensibility to the whole of the first movement.  Various pedal points and ppp markings produce an other-worldly affect in which glimpses of the transcendent open our emotional vista. The sudden incursions of dark matter disrupt – or disjunct – our blissful vision and remind us of the mortal coil.

The ensuing Andante in D Major casts an intimate mood, but its careful introspection suffers an intrusion ff in stentorian B minor followed by lyrical pp that returns to the major mode.  A series of three-bar phrases imposes a kind of classicism even to this Manichean contest of emotions. The emotional defining moments come by way of B Major. The harmonic labyrinth Schubert creates finds a sense of comfort in the gentle dynamics by Wosner that mark the shifts in rhythmic pulse. The final pages exert the work’s tragic leanings, moving to D minor for an uncertain resolution. The plastic B minor Menuetto has all the rural consolation of a militant laendler, but without rancor.  Schumann found nothing of the “fantasy” in the last movement, the G Major Allegretto, a luminous tune that dances, often in a rondo-sonata form Haydn popularized. The frequent softening of the dynamics adds to the luminous mystery of the occasion, sometimes a carefree musing on the whims of fortune. True, Schubert anticipates that uncanny moment in Dylan Thomas that “time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

Perhaps the sonata most approaching Beethoven’s tragic ethos, the Sonata in C minor, D. 958 (1828)
gives us exalted visions of final thoughts, though it does not “go gently into that good night.” True to his idiosyncratic sense of form, Schubert loosens the restraints of Classical structure to incorporate moments of whimsy, lyrical nostalgia, an improvisation.  The loveliest melody in the opening movement arrives in E-flat Major, but its presence suffers neglect when the development opts on conflict rather than solace. The Adagio in A-flat Major proffers a chorale tune that proceeds in four-part harmony and includes two episodes, the first, in triplets, close in spirit to the second movement of Beethoven’s Op. 13.  The presence of full measure rests indicates a depth of feeling and hurt that sound merely intimates. A small storm at sea arises late in the movement that cedes to the opening theme, punctuated by a staccato bass that intensifies the eeriness of the moment.

The Menuetto continues the clever use of rests to contribute to a feeling of “gallows humor.” The Trio section in A-flat has something of the Viennese laendler about it, despite the restless tenor of the harmony. While posing as a tarantella, the last movement Allegro contains a punishing rage that does not abate.  The movement assumes the gait of an unearthly horse’s gallop, perhaps an adumbration of the unholy rides we find in D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner.” Wosner elicits from the obsessional progression a dire feeling of bittersweet beauty, close to Dante’s Francesca’s remembering times of bliss in the midst of torment.

My former teacher and mentor Carmina Arena postulated that the 1828 Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major represents Schubert’s protestation against the tragic sense of loss.  The opening melody and its strain of melancholy finds immediate interruption by an ominous, ubiquitous trill of dissolution. This broad movement – among those creations of “heavenly length” – with the two ensuing melodies that comprise the exposition capture the alternating emotions of yearning and anxiety that haunt the textures, the play of major and minor and their capacity to reverse their character. Each appearance of trill in F Major and its staccato tail tend to disrupt whatever bower of bliss Schubert weaves prior.  “But at my back I always hear Time’s wing’d chariot hurrying near.” These fateful words of Marvell provide the only poetry Hemingway ever cites, and they seem fitting here in Schubert. The sensibility of bleak wandering would appear to parallel much of the desolation in the song-cycle Die Winterreise. Thick, layered textures contrast with simple, diatonic gestures, only to be negated by that inexorable trill.  A full silence, and the recapitulation begins once more the tragic round. The appearance of the lovely melody, immediately juxtaposed against the trill, brings to mind Mahler of The Song of the Earth, pitting the ape of spiritual mockery against the drawn wine of life, a toast to paradox!

The halting melody of the Andante sostenuto remains one of the miracles of the keyboard, with its lulling accompaniment that might suggest the waters against Annabelle Lee’s tomb. Inward meditation fuses with elegy immemorial to weave a major melody of infinite consolation. The presence of short, staccato notes, here, as before, serve to dispel the reverie.  The melody, having become grander and bolder, protests its immunity from corruption. Another full pause, and the music treads on singing, light feet, sensing the mystery of the soul: that “I myself am Heaven and Hell.”  The Scherzo exploits  the eight-bar motif in B-flat Major but gravitates into the tonic minor in the central section. Its light swagger dispels much of the pensive gloom of the sonata, but it delights in the ambivalence of duple versus triple meter. The last movement Allegro ma non troppo proceeds in B-flat, but first Schubert establishes a kind of recurrent pedal on G.  This ambivalence lends its character with hints of G minor, with its own “foil” in the large melody in F Major. A sudden burst of sad energy arises in F minor, and then Schubert develops the main motif in counterpoint.  Wosner imbues the procession with a combination of nostalgia and tragic impetus, the music’s sailing off into space with a series of light, galloping, parallel phrases. A huge pause before the presto coda, and the music ends with a reticent sense of triumph, unconscious swan-song that it is, composed just several month’s before one of the great poets of art expired.

If I read correctly, this lovely album serves as a momento mori for the pianist’s mother, Judith Wosner (1939-2019).

—Gary Lemco

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