Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Hob.XVIII:4 (1768-70) [21:01]
Piano Concerto No. 11 in D major, Hob.XVIII:11 (1779-80) [17:39]
Capriccio in G major, ‘Acht Sauschneider müssen sein’, Hob.XVII:1 (1765) [7:15]
Capriccio (Fantasia) in C major, Hob.XVII:4 (1789) [6:16]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Piano Concerto (1985-88) [22:20]
Capriccio No. 1 (1947) [2:53]
Capriccio No. 2 (1947) [2:08]
Shai Wosner (piano)
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Collon
rec. DR Koncerthuset, Copenhagen, Denmark, 7-14 August 2015
ONYX 4174 [79:39]
At first glance one must wonder what on earth these composers who are separated by nearly 200 years have in common. Listening to the CD, however, makes it abundantly clear that this unusual coupling could not be more apt. Both composers have an infectious sense of humor that is brilliantly displayed in their piano music. Indeed, it was a stroke of genius for Shai Wosner to place them together on this disc. I have listed the works in what I thought the most logical order, but Wosner has the composers alternating throughout the programme. While one can appreciate each piece in itself, it is also fun to sit back and listen to the CD from beginning to end. There is not a dull moment to be had on this delightful disc.
This was my first exposure to Wosner’s pianism and he impresses equally in Haydn and Ligeti. Haydn’s piano concertos have never attained the popularity of Mozart’s for good reason. Although they are very well crafted and enjoyable in their own right, they lack the depth of the later composer’s works in the genre. The one most often performed is No. 11 in D major with its Hungarian rondo finale. Wosner makes as good a case for the concertos on this CD as can be imagined. His playing is robust and lively and not lacking warmth. The reduced Danish orchestra and Nicholas Collon are outstanding in their partnership, the latter keeping a light handle on things. This is Haydn, though, for those who do not prefer period instruments. Yet their approach is one of Classical vigor and plentiful charm, the strings playing with minimal vibrato. Such is the exhilaration that Wosner at times rushes the tempo a little, most noticeably in the first movement of the D major Concerto. This only adds to the joie de vivre of his interpretation. The slow movements, though, are the heart of these concertos and accordingly are deeply felt by both soloist and orchestra.
Where Haydn’s sense of humor is most apparent is in the two short solo works, the Capriccios. The subtitle of the G major Capriccio, as translated from the German, is “It takes eight of you to castrate a boar”! As Wosner writes in his lively notes, the origin of this subtitle “remains mysterious—most likely a forgotten Austrian folk song—but it would have no doubt been relished wholeheartedly by the 20th-century composer of the Nonsense Madrigals.” The C major Capriccio’s humor comes from the music itself where Haydn has the pianist hold a note until the sound decays and disappears completely, leaving a long pause. This happens twice in the work (2:22-2:34) and (3:56-4:08) not so much to make the listener think the piece is finished, but rather that the pianist has gotten lost! Wosner seems to be having fun in these moments as much as he is enjoying the charming works as a whole.
Wosner’s apparent ease with Ligeti’s complex writing is also remarkable. As Haydn is best known for the sonatas among his piano works, Ligeti’s most important contribution to the piano literature is undoubtedly his Etudes. Nonetheless, his Piano Concerto also ranks high among his compositions and has received several first-class recorded performances. I am happy to add Wosner’s to that list. I compared his version with two of my favorites, Ueli Wiget’s with the Ensemble Modern under Peter Eötvös (Sony) and Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s with the Asko Ensemble under Reinbert de Leeuw (Teldec’s Ligeti Project). To generalize, Wiget/Eötvös is more distantly recorded than the others and the piano is more integrated in the chamber ensemble, while for Aimard and Wosner the piano is more upfront and all the details in the complex orchestration really tell. Both approaches in recording this piece seem successful to me.
Wosner obviously relishes the wild and jazzy rhythms of the first movement, which are influenced by the Central African folk music Ligeti was so taken with. The second and third movements contain the descending lamento motif that was a trademark of the composer. In the second movement the lament begins on flute whereas in the following movement the piano has it from the start. Among the unusual orchestration in the second movement is the employment of an ocarina, slide whistle and police whistle. In this recording a siren seems to be used, like the one Hindemith employed in his Kammermusik No. 1, instead of the slide whistle. Indeed, Wosner refers to it as such in his notes to the CD. I had never heard it in recordings of the Ligeti before, but I prefer the less obtrusive slide whistle as per Wiget and Aimard. In the fourth movement Wosner/Collon are somewhat faster than the others and manage the huge dynamic range well, building inexorably to the finale that is a wild ride to the finish line. The work ends on single tap by the wood block. I would have a difficult time choosing one of these recordings over the other. The three interpretations are all different enough to merit inclusion in any Ligeti collection.
The Ligeti Capriccios come from a different world from that of the Piano Concerto. Although Bartók is never very far away, these early works with their shades of East European folk music could not be mistaken for anyone other than Ligeti. The first one is particularly memorable, with a theme that haunts the mind long afterwards. There is humor in these pieces, too, but it is of the understated sort and not as obvious as that in Haydn’s similarly-named works. Irina Kataeva in Sony’s Ligeti Edition performs them in a swifter, straighter manner and is less inflected than Wosner. She certainly plays them well and one could argue that they don’t need to be “interpreted,” but simply played well. Wosner is more deliberate and has a more pronounced range of dynamics, resulting in the works seeming greater than they are.
This disc, then, is a fine showcase for Shai Wosner’s pianism (as well as the outstanding collaboration with Nicholas Collon and members of the Danish National Symphony) and quite an appropriate coupling of composers, as odd as that may seem. It is one I shall return to often for its innumerable delights. If your primary interest is the Ligeti Piano Concerto, the all-Ligeti recordings I mentioned above are highly recommendable. If you are seeking only the Haydn concertos, there are a number of excellent choices, including Bavouzet (Chandos), Ax (Sony), Andsnes (EMI-Warner), and Hamelin (Hyperion). I myself find this particular Haydn-Ligeti combination, with the Capriccios as a bonus, irresistible.