Brahms and Schoenberg have much in common, their historicism,
their devotion to the Austro-German canon, their learning, the
Viennese pedigree of their works ... but the one thing that
would seem to separate them is the noise their music makes.
Shai Wosner is evidently out to prove that contention wrong.
The centrepiece of this programme is a performance of the Brahms
Op.116 Fantasias interspersed with Schoenberg's Op.19 piano
pieces. Does it work? Well, yes the musical coherency and intrigue
of the result is undeniable. Historically the distance is less
than you might think, the Brahms being very late and the Schoenberg
relatively early. More important, perhaps, is the fact that
the Schoenberg is Expressionist rather than serial, and clearly
owes much to Brahms' late works. That said, you are very unlikely
to confuse the two composers, the issue of tonality - however
loose - is the clear divider. There is also a discipline about
all of Brahms' piano music that Schoenberg rarely shares. But
Wosner is clearly soliciting individual opinions about the musical
relationships between the two composers, so you'll have to decide
for yourself at what level, if any, the musical styles meet.
This Op.116/Op.19 experiment is framed by two large works, each
an early but major contribution to the repertoire. To begin,
we hear the Schoenberg Op.25 Suite, and for me this is the highlight
of the disc. The work is historically significant for being
the first in which Schoenberg uses his serial technique consistently
from beginning to end. As is so often the case with historical
landmarks, it is studied and discussed far more than it is heard.
That's a real shame, because it is a great piece. It is one
of those 20th century works which is obviously very
difficult to play, or rather to interpret, but is also quite
demure and so does not give the pianist many chances to show
off his skills. It is structured as a baroque suite with each
of the movements in dance form, but paradoxically, the rhythmic
identities of each of these dance genres are almost completely
ignored and Schoenberg instead injects energy and propulsion
with his own more sophisticated rhythmic ideas. The success
of Wosner's performance is largely down to his feeling for the
detail. He really focuses in on the relationships between successive
notes and chords, which given the detail of Schoenberg's score
is surely appropriate. You get the feeling that the dynamic
and placing of every note has been painstakingly considered.
And just as importantly, the music retains its immediacy and
spontaneity, even in the face of some heavy intellectualising
from both the composer and the pianist. It is a tricky balancing
act to interpret this music effectively, but Wosner is clearly
up to the task.
The final work on the disc is the Brahms Handel Variations Op.24.
Like the Schoenberg Op.25, this represents the composer's first
significant mature contribution to the piano repertoire. Wosner
takes a more laid-back approach to this music, he lets the melodies
sing more and doesn't worry so much about the internal balance
of the textures. This more lyrical approach is surely what the
music requires, but it sits uneasily with the programme's aims
of comparing Brahms and Schoenberg. The Brahms Op.25, especially
when played like this, is closer to Schumann or even Schubert.
But if the Brahms/Schoenberg idea does work - and I'm still
undecided - it is because of the Brahms' multi-faceted musical
persona. He was both progressive and conservative, and it is
to Wosner's credit that he demonstrates both sides, both in
his programming and in his playing.
The audio here is excellent. The piano is recorded in a fairly
resonant acoustic, but the precision of Wosner's touch, of his
articulation and of his pedalling, is such that no details are
lost. Wosner has done both composers a service with this recording,
but in the long run Schoenberg is going to come off better for
his attentions. The performance of the Op.25 Suite that opens
this programme is a real revelation. The Brahms is good too,
but it is the Schoenberg I’ll be returning to soonest.