Concert review: Israeli pianist's fine showcase of improvisation in classical music

Israeli pianist Shai Wosner performed at the 23rd Singapore International Piano Festival on Friday (June 24) for a solo recital, having made his festival debut in 2011.
Israeli pianist Shai Wosner performed at the 23rd Singapore International Piano Festival on Friday (June 24) for a solo recital, having made his festival debut in 2011. PHOTO: SHAI WOSNER / FACEBOOK

SHAI WOSNER Piano Recital

23rd Singapore International Piano Festival

Friday (June 24)/Victoria Concert Hall

In classical music, the art of the impromptu or improvisation is hardly exhibited these days, except in rare cases of artists performing original cadenzas in a concerto. Even that is hardly spontaneous, as the said impromptus are usually much rehearsed and often scored.

The first half of Israeli pianist Shai Wosner's recital was devoted to the genre of impromptus. Beginning with Dvorak's Impromptu In D Minor, its folk-like and salon charm benefited from his tonal warmth and velvety touch. Its central section had surprisingly piquant harmonies, paving the way for Gershwin's insouciant Impromptu In Two Keys, the American composer's playful experiment with bitonality.

Then came the two composers who defined the impromptu as a genre piece. Chopin's First Impromptu was set in perpetual motion with impeccable articulation, contrasted with the freer approach of the Second Impromptu, which began like a nocturne, then morphed into an imperious march before engaging in flourishes of right-hand filigree. Here the feeling of impromptu became more palpable.

Schubert's set of Four Impromptus (D.935) are masterpieces, on which Wosner lavished a labour of love and fine detail. Never far from the composer's world of Lieder, the music radiated lyricism yet delved in the darker vistas of his tragically short life. This was no better illustrated than in the opening F minor Impromptu, coloured with high drama and moments of innocence.

The popular A-flat major Impromptu's chorale-like opening was beautifully voiced, and the Theme & Variations of the B-flat major Impromptu displayed the full gamut of his musicality. A mastery of scales, fast rhythms and staccato playing also shone through in the Hungarian-styled final Impromptu In F Minor.

The second half opened with Chopin's Tarantella (Op.43) in a workman-like reading which seemed an incongruously random choice at the time. This was soon forgotten as soon as Schubert's Sonata In C Minor (D.958), the evening's main work, got underway.

Its declamatory chords spoke volumes of angst and tribulation, one voiced with unflinching intensity. The contrasts between light and shade, soft and loud became amplified under his highly personal and intense glare. The playing was emphatic, phrasing often intentionally abrupt, but it never descended to banging or shouting.

The aural oasis offered by the slow movement in A flat major, the sonata's spiritual heart, offered the recital's finest moments. Beginning like the Impromptu in the same key, it traversed a course of emotional pinnacles and depths that was breathtaking. A nervous and agitated Minuet movement soon gave way to the vertiginous finale in tarantella rhythm, which concluded on an exciting high.

As if to highlight a joyful symmetry of programming, Wosner's encores included Schubert's lilting Hungarian Melody and an original improvisation. In the manner of Schubert's German Dances, here was a true impromptu to complete the evening's fine fare.