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Shai Wosner - Brahms & Schoenberg

The Independent 15.01.2011

This intermingling may seem surprising, but as Wosner points out there are profound connections between the greatest Romantic and the leading tonal iconoclast: indeed, Schoenberg hailed Brahms as his mentor. Wosner’s pianism is consummate, with Brahms’s Opus 116 Fantasies emerging in subtle colours, and Schoenberg’s Opus 25 Suite brightly coruscating.
Michael Church

American Record Guide

a] superb rendering of Brahms and Schoenberg. His tone is impressively varied: uncompromisingly muscular in the Brahms Capriccio and Schoenberg's Prelude, meltingly otherworldly in the slower intermezzos and quieter Schoenberg pieces. Intermezzo 4 is achingly beautiful. His articulation of the theme and faster moments in the Handel Variations is so crisp and his touch so aggressive in the Schoenberg Suite that we wonder if he is playing a different instrument in these works than in the softly contoured middle pieces. This is a fascinating and satisfying recording no matter how one approaches it.


NPR Music 30 December 2010

Pianist Shai Wosner has been performing to critical acclaim for years, but he has only recently made his debut recording, titled Shai Wosner: Brahms and Schoenberg.

I recently saw Wosner in recital, and the first thing I noted about watching him onstage was that he wasn't a swooner. While music can have motion that seems to sway, some performers overdo their body movements, sometimes as part of showmanship. But Wosner focuses his energy directly on the keys, which helps him produce a deeply rich and penetrating sound without sacrificing nuance — as in the Intermezzo, Op. 116, No. 2 by Brahms.
Brahms' piano writing can be particularly difficult, because his musical structures are often dense. Some pianists may play all the notes correctly, but the sound can come out muddy. Wosner brings transparency to dense passages, revealing their intricacies while maintaining the overall impact of Brahms' characteristically thick textures. Wosner's performance of the Capriccio, Op. 116, No. 3 is a good example.
Brahms' Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel is a 19-minute work, as well as one of the main pieces of this recording. I have to admit that I've never really liked the piece until I heard this performance. It's a showcase for Wosner's variety of touch at the keyboard, and for the different musical worlds he creates.

It's more than touch, of course, that makes Wosner so impressive. His fingers are at the service of a keen musical mind and deep musical soul. He's downright thrilling in recital. So if you have the chance to see him, take it. You'll witness a young artist at the beginning of his career, who — decades down the line — will be spoken of as one of the greats.
International Record Review December 2010

'...I have not enjoyed a new piano recital as much in quite some time!'
Raymond S. Tuttle

International Piano Magazine November/December 2010

The works of Brahms and Schoenberg provide a fascinating coupling, for despite Schoenberg's article 'Brahms the progressive', written for Brahms's centenary year in 1933, it is the differences between the two composers that are so much more apparent than the similarites. Shai Wosner takes things one major step further by interweaving Brahms's Seven Fantasies op116 with Schoenberg's Six Piano Pieces op19. It's an interesting concept, instantly bringing to ones attention the motivic economy that characterises both sets, and forcing one to listen to each anew....
this is pianism of the very highest order, involving and full blooded, with such burnished passion from Wosner that it is a surprise that these are not live performances.

Wosner lives dangerously and his are thrilling accounts of op116 and the Handel Variations , with brisk tempos and large rubato, and with little of the grandiloquence of the likes of Katchen or Lupu. The Schoenberg pieses also reveal why Wosner has been so acclaimed , with an immensely varied tonal palate, from Debussyan, bell-like sonorities to the most astringent of percussive writing, a vast range of dynamics, and with the rhythm of carefully contriolled with silence and rests clearly part of the musical fabric. The last of Schoenberg's Six Pieces, composed in 1911, after he had attended Mahler's funeral - provides an extraordinary demonstration of the delicacy and subtlety of Wosner's artistry. In short, a fascinating disc, this is a pianist to watch.

Nicholas Salwey.

The Scotsman 19.10.2010
ISRAELI pianist Shai Wosner makes a convincing, if idiosyncratic, case for the link between Brahms and Schoenberg in this coupling of both composers' piano music. No more so than his simultaneous presentation – alternating movements – of Brahms's gorgeous 7 Fantasien Op 116 and Schoenberg's lyrically aphoristic 6 kleine Klaverstücke Op19. Not only does this highlight the much underplayed extrovert tension of Brahms, but it draws out, too, Schoenberg's surprisingly lyrical tendencies.

Both composers receive unadulterated treatment in separate performances of Schoenberg's Suite Op 25 and Brahms's wholesome Variations and Fugue on a theme of Handel, with Wosner's playing bold and intriguing in both.

Kenneth Walton

The New York Times 10.10.2010

Finding Brahms in Schoenberg
'Brahms the Progressive' is the title of an insightful essay that Schoenberg first presented as a radio talk in 1933 in honor of the Brahms centenary. At the time to speak of Brahms as a progressive was counterintuitive. Brahms was a Romantic of course. But if anything, he was regarded as the Classicist among his generation of German Romantic composers.

Brahms had a musicological bent, did studies of Bach and Handel, and brought attention to early Baroque and Renaissance composers. Yet he also saw the future. In his late works he anticipated the breakdown of tonality. In his important essay Schoenberg claimed Brahms as a model for his own blend of tradition and radicalism.

The links between these giants come through compellingly on the new recording of works by Brahms and Schoenberg by the excellent Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner. He begins with Schoenberg's Suite (Op25 1921-23), the first complete Schoenberg piano work using the 12-tone technique from start to finish. The piece is Schoenberg's homage to Bach's keyboard suites, complete with preludes, gavotte, musette and gigue.Mr Wosner ends the recording with Brahms's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, a formidable work requiring virtuosic technique, but also delightful, inventive music that at once celebrates and pokes fun at ornate Baroque styles.

At the centre of this program Mr Wosner offers a daring experiment. He plays Brahms's Opus 116 Fantasies, a set of seven intermezzos and capriccios from 1892. But interspersed between the pieces he plays the very brief, grippingly compact miniatures of Schoenberg's Six Little Piano Pieces (Op19). He actually alternates the individual Brahms and Schoenberg works. And the experiment is fascinating. After a while you hardly notice the segues from Brahms's searching, mystical pieces to Schoenberg's aphoristic atonal miniatures.The composers seem like soulmates from a common musical realm.

In his 1933 lecture Schoenberg, sometimes playfully, asserted that audiances should not be snookered by the classical trappings of Brahms's sypmphonies and chamber works. To make the case for Brahms as a progressive, Schoenberg pointed to his use of irregular phrase lengths, his unorthodox approach to structure, his daring way of building phrases from fragments and motifs rather than complete melodic lines and, most of all, his extremely chromatic and experimental harmonic language.

Though Mr Wosner's recording gives support to Schoenberg's thesis, there is nothing academic about these performances. He plays the Schoenberg suite with crispness and clarity. The Gavotte and the Musette dance and swing with appropriate Baroque energy. Except for the 12-tone language, these pieces truly evoke their sources. Yet Mr Wosner also captures the modernist daring and wildness of the music. When the music turns restless, he plays with infectious spontaneity, adjusting tempos at will. He also gives a joyous, technically assured account of Brahms's exhilarating Handel Variations.

In the Brahms fantasies he brings sensitivity and elegance to the most atmospheric and elusive of the pieces (like the fragmented, self contained intermezzo in E minor, though you hesitate to assign a key to this harmonically radical music) It is stunning to hear the final juxtaposition, where Mr Wosner moves from the agitated, tumultuous Capricio in D minor, which ends the Brahms set, to the last Schoenberg miniature, a series of bell-like, pungently atonal chords played almost at a whisper, a piece Schoenberg wrote in 1911 after attending Mahler's funeral.

There are liner notes by Mr Wosner, whose ability to speak intelligently about music came through in a recent recital at Symphony Space. This is an inventively conceived and impressive recording.

Anthony Tommasini

BBC Radio 3 CD Review 01.10.2010

'...intense focus...muscular momentum to crystalline stasis in almost a heartbeat. A thoughtfully wrought, gently provocative recital'.

Andrew MacGregor

Dilettante Music 27.09.2010
Pairing Brahms with Schoenberg, the Israeli sets out his intellectual credentials. The seven Brahms fantasies, op 116, are delicately interspersed with Schoenberg’s six little piano pieces, opus 19, one of them written on returning from Mahler’s funeral. At either end of the disc is a big piece – Schoenberg’s 1925 piano suite and Brahms’s Handel variations, exquisitely played.

Norman Lebrecht

Classical Source, October 2010

Shai Wosner, a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Artist, makes a wonderfully lucid job of Schoenberg’s supposedly thorny Suite, its five movements living and breathing, riddled with expression and temperament. It seems only received opinion that Schoenberg’s music is forbidding; try listening for yourself and you may find that it isn’t.
Having ‘sorted’ Schoenberg’s Opus 25, Wosner leads-back to Brahms, a hero of Schoenberg’s, and pays both composers a compliment by juxtaposing (but not always alternating) a set of pieces by each, and persuasively so, for this emerges as a seamless cycle; Schoenberg didn’t put a barrier up but continued the musical line..... Once again Wosner makes sense of what might be thought Schoenbergian disorder, Opus 19 emerging as miniature gems, and his playing of Brahms’s Fantasies is both heroic and sensitive. Of course, with the programming of tracks both collections can be played as their composers intended; but their mingling here is very revealing (even if the gap between the final movement of each is too long).
Brahms’s magnificent Handel Variations is given a very fine performance.... the opening theme quite gently presented, ornaments crisp enough, the commentaries that follow finely characterised without disrupting the whole, Wosner alive to Brahms’s wit, heart and ingenuity, the Fugue a logical rather than separately rhetorical culmination.

Colin Anderson

The Guardian 27.08.2010
This is a genuinely imaginative pairing of two composers who have more in common than their popular images might suggest. Schoenberg's brand of modernism was built upon Brahms's classicism just as much as it depended upon Wagner's harmonic emancipation. Shai Wosner frames his disc with Schoenberg's Suite and what he regards as Brahms's first mature large-scale piano work, the Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel. They are decent performances, but between them Wosner takes a radical approach, interleaving the seven fantasies of Brahms's Op116 with the compressed miniatures of Schoenberg's Op19. The sequence works well, and Wosner's understated playing suits it perfectly

Andrew Clements