Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Spirit is Weak in Shai Wosner’s “Impromptu” Project on Onyx

Almost exactly a month ago Onyx Classics released pianist Shai Wosner’s latest solo album:


Entitled Impromptu, the recording is based on an eyebrow-raising question posed on both the back cover and the Editorial Reviews section of the Web page:
What would happen if Schubert, Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt, Dvorak, Gershwin and Ives got together for a posthumous jam session?
As was abundantly clear in Bridge to Beethoven: A Journey in Four Nights, a series of four recitals that Wosner developed working with violinist Jennifer Koh, he is a performer that is as much at home in the immediate present as he is in the nineteenth century. However, it is one thing to venture adventurously into programming that juxtaposes commissioned works with Beethoven’s chamber music and quite another to take on the baggage of jamming.

Such a venture must begin by “coming to terms,” so to speak, with the title of Wosner’s album. That term rates its own entry in Grove Music Online, written by Maurice J.E. Brown. Here is the first sentence of that entry:
A composition for solo instrument, usually the piano, the nature of which may occasionally suggest improvisation, though the name probably derives from the casual way in which the inspiration for such a piece came to the composer.
The operative word in that definition is “suggest.” In other words the music has been committed to paper with the same discipline that one would encounter in a sonata movement, but the intention is to suggest that what had been written was the product of spontaneous improvisation.

As many of my elders were fond of saying (usually with a Yiddish accent):
So what else is new?
We know “from the record” that Johann Sebastian Bach attached great important to “invention” where pedagogy was concerned (and we know this best from how he trained his own sons). We have every reason to believe that he, himself, was very good at invention, particularly at a wide variety of keyboards that included both the harpsichord and the pipe organ. It is also reasonable to suggest that the Collegium Musicum gatherings in which he participated on Friday evenings at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig could be called “jam sessions” with little risk of misrepresentation.

So one question that might be reasonable to ask would be: Is that same spirit of invention evident on Wosner’s Impromptu album? There are probably two prongs involved in addressing that question. One involves whether or not any of those composers enumerated in that question above were improvisers; and the other is whether or not the selections that Wosner made for the recording “suggest” improvisation, even if the composers were not that good at it. The composer about which we are best informed is Ludwig van Beethoven, for whom improvising before an audience was part of his stock-in-trade as a performer. As far as “suggestion” is concerned, it is no great stretch to imagine that the Opus 77 fantasy on this album amounted to an effort to document one or more of those improvisations.

However, as history advanced into the nineteenth century, spontaneity tended to have more to do with performance than with composition. Thus, the label “impromptu” was attached to the four compositions by Franz Schubert that appear as D. 899 in Otto Erich Deutsch’s catalog not by Schubert but by his publisher Tobias Haslinger. Wosner decided to use the second set, D. 935, as the “spinal cord” of his album; and, in this case, Schubert seems to have been the one to call them “impromptus.” However, was this just a matter of his going along with Haslinger’s game? Furthermore, once that cat was out of the bag, so to speak, did it then prompt subsequent publication decisions by Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt? Personally, I suspect that the works on this album have less to do with “a posthumous jam session” and more with a shared interest in publication as a revenue stream!

Nevertheless, the critical factor of any album has to do with listening, rather than any texts (or the premises behind those texts), which could easily have been created for little more than marketing value. From that point of view, I would say that, for the most part, the performances on this recording have more to do with “fidelity to the text” than with any suggestion of spontaneity. To be fair, however, I must also say that, from a personal point of view, I was pretty much impressed by the spontaneity that Wosner brought to the recitals I have attended, particularly those involving playing Beethoven’s violin sonatas with Koh.

Thus, my discontent may have less to do with Wosner as an interpreter for repertoire from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and more to do with production practices at Onyx Classics. The fact is that this is not the first Onyx CD I have experienced of a pianist whom I have enjoyed in recital. A pattern seems to be emerging that these pianists are not getting a fair shake from Onyx production practices, and inquiring minds would be justified in asking if this is really the case.

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