Shai Wosner

The Israeli pianist talks about the dark side of Schubert

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With Radio 3 clearing the airwaves to broadcast more than 200 hours of Schubert at the end of this month, we've been talking to today's top Schubertians about which of the composer's works most inspire them. Today, we chat to Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner, who released an all-Schubert CD on Onyx in 2011. 'What strikes the listener is the aristocratic grace of Wosner’s tone,' wrote Michael Church in BBC Music Magazine. 'This CD puts him straight into the front rank of the Schubertians.'

Which piece by Schubert has most inspired you?
That’s a very difficult question. The D Major Sonata, D850 was the first piece that made me realise how different Schubert was from a lot of other composers. I’d also mention the G major String Quartet, D887 and the E flat major Mass No. 6, D950. The Sonata was the first piece that made me realise how strong the connection is between Schubert and Mahler, something that resonates strongly.

What aspects of the music suggest this connection to you?
There are certain motivic connections between parts of the Sonata and some of the Mahler Symphonies. But it’s also the general sense of life as a journey: there's the metaphorical journey of Schubert's songs, of course, but also it's there in his non-vocal music. It’s also shown in the co-existence of idyllic and quasi-na├»ve elements, and the very strong, dark emotions that lie underneath them. At the time this is extremely unique to Schubert.

And why does the D major Sonata particularly illustrate this?
This is the piece in which the tension struck me between ‘simple’, magical, beguiling tunes and the fact the Schubert is on of the most courageous of composers in reaching into the darkest areas of the mind. This Sonata has a lot of exuberance at the start, and then later on things get a lot more complicated.

You mentioned the E flat major Mass – that’s a side of Schubert that often gets forgotten.
I don’t think he was a particularly religious man, although I’m sure that can be debated, but the raw power of these pieces like the String Quartet in G and the Mass is really quite terrifying I think. Of course he was influenced by Beethoven but his personality and musical language was so uniquely his. For me his concept of time, they way he feels musical time, is extremely different from any other composer. In that sense too I think he foreshadows Bruckner.

By having an expansive sense of architecture?
Yes, exactly. And Schubert for me is about doubting ideals and questioning; Beethoven, for example, is about ideals. I’m not saying that in a judgemental way, but the differences between these two composers are so telling.

So Beethoven is more about the struggle?
Yes, the creative struggle. But maybe not so much personal, psychological struggle. Beethoven is about a creative process. For me Schubert is about the inner struggle of longing for an idyllic existence that perhaps never existed, the harsh realities of the complexities of the mind. In a way it’s really ahead of its time. It’s a bit like the play that was written years before the opera. That sense of doubt resurfaces in Mahler and Berg. A good example is the Unfinished Symphony. The middle of the first movement is just about the darkest music ever written by anyone. He goes to a key that Beethoven consciously avoided: B minor, which as far as I know he called the ‘dark key’. Avoided by Beethoven, yet Schubert writes one of his biggest symphonic statements in that very key: I think that’s quite telling.

Is it some kind of symbolic reference?
Perhaps, I don’t know. Even if he wasn’t conscious of it, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s in that key and it’s really one of his darkest pieces. Those two movements epitomise what Schubert's about for me – the almost insanely dark first movement and this idyllic E major in the second movement – capture it in a nutshell.

To find out about which works musicians including violinist Julia Fischer and pianist Mitsuko Uchida chose, pick up a copy of the March issue of BBC Music Magazine, on sale now.

You can also download six free tracks by Schubert on iTunes, if you're in the UK, by going to www.classical-music.com/itunes