By Julie Amacher, Classical MPR
"It never ceases to amaze me the power of the music that came out of that little man."
American-Israeli pianist Shai Wosner is a champion of the music of Franz Schubert, who was indeed a little man, not even five feet tall. He was not the first of the 19th century Romantics, but as Harold Schonberg once said, Schubert was "the first lyric poet of the music."
Shai Wosner's latest recording features the late Piano sonatas, which are more accurately Schubert's mature sonatas, since he lived to be just 31 years old.
Schubert is one of your specialties and I'm wondering, how did you become so enamored with Schubert as a performer and as a pianist?
"Ah, how many hours do we have? I try to boil down the essence of what he's about. And often what I come up with is there is that inimitable blend of tragedy and hope that is in the mature pieces, in the late pieces, certainly. It is kind of there all the time.
Something that I have to say I feel is really very contemporary, because often what you would have is this sort of peacefulness to the music. It would unfold almost in a timeless way. It sounds it seems like, you know, floating in another realm, so to speak. And then all of a sudden there would be this incredible cry of anguish and sometimes just raw, almost violence out of the blue.
And yet that thing, whatever that is, would then subside and that timeless flow, would resume almost as if nothing happened. And sometimes it feels almost improbable. And yet, at the end of a movement where that happens, you feel some sort of a consolation, you feel it gives you the feeling of acceptance and resignation. And these are all words that I really associate very closely with Schubert's music."
Let's talk about his late sonatas that appears on this recording. Let's start with the sonata in A minor. Are there any parts of that sonata that you'd like us to pay particular attention to?
"The Scherzo, kind of captures the essence of the essence of Schubert, if you will. You have the stormy outer part that's very fast. Very hard to play too. And yet you have in the middle this lullaby. It's like a psychological depiction of of a lullaby, something from your distant past. And I think the way the two are juxtaposed, Makes the whole thing feel like a like almost like a nightmarish ride into your psyche. Even though it's on paper, just a scherzo — supposed to be a joke. But like I say, with Schubert, nothing is as it seems."
Every time you say that — with Schubert nothing is like it seems — makes me think that his music is so perfect for the times we're in right now.
"I do find it fascinating comparing the times we live in and the times he lived in.
I do think that this music has a lot to give us right now in the sense of, you know, the acceptance of of the world as it is with its beauty and its ugliness. And somehow, you know, making it into a glorious masterpiece like or like each of these sonatas is. And in giving us something to hold on to....some, you know, a source of beauty and a source of hope and a sort of something that endures."
His last major work was his Sonata in B-flat major and it does stand out something like Beethoven's Hammerklavier or his 9th Symphony. What is it about this work that sets it apart in that way?
"It's really mostly about continuity and discontinuity. This is like a running sort of thread through the whole forty-something minutes of this piece. He would have a phrase and then all of a sudden the phrase would cut short. There would be this ominous silence. And so for me, that's really one of the greatest example of how music can really get you to think big thoughts about who you are, where you are in the world. And that's that's the miracle of Schubert, of all these great composers, really, that that they're able to do that with just notes."
In his music, too, it's often the small passing moments that have the biggest impact. Can you share an example of one of those small passing moments?
"In the minuet of the G major sonata ...it's a short movement with a little middle section. And in that middle section, Schubert evokes like a hurdy gurdy texture. It sounds like a folk instrument sort of holding a drone.
And he takes that special moment and it's like he takes one layer off, and then you discover that underneath that there is an even more special color. He switches keys and basically just repeats the same thing, but even softer. It's one of the greatest moments in any piece I've ever played."
The last sonatas of Franz Schubert, with pianist Shai Wosner.
To hear the rest of my conversation, download the extended podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.