Brendel’s pianism has been called, unjustly it seems to me, overly cerebral. When Shai Wosner played Schubert’s B-flat major Sonata, D. 960, last Tuesday in St. Francis Auditorium, echoing Brendel’s reading of that sonata way back in 1973, cerebralism just wasn’t in it. What Wosner offered was more of an idiosyncratic exploration of the piece, at times exaggerated in its extended pauses and lingering rubatos, but clearly attempting to find a path to the interior of this unpredictable, kaleidoscopic sonata, especially in its strange and fearsome first movement.
His recital opened with a furious account of Schubert’s Klavierstück, D. 946, No. 1 and continued with Jörg Widmann’s “Idyll and Abyss: Six Schubert Reminiscences” (2009). Each brief movement presented a different take on the earlier composer, with ghostly, gauzy wisps of themes and melodies punctuated by dissonant explosions and abrupt mood shifts. At times puzzling, at others playful, the rewarding piece paid loving, semi-astringent homage to its provocateur.
More Schubert happened a couple days later on Aug. 1 when the Johannes Quartet essayed his String Quartet No. 13, the “Rosamunde.” While striving for easy lightness and buoyant charm throughout, their reading more often seemed just underplayed. Still, that upbeat Menuetto made me long for the ballroom.
Schumann opened the concert: his 1840 song cycle Dichterliebe, Op. 48, in a performance by Matthew Worth with Wosner at the piano. I use the word “performance” literally, because Worth’s monodramatics made for a far more intensely personal expression than one often encounters in this heart-breaking cycle. Worth’s repertory has been largely operatic so far—he sang Valentin in the Santa Fe Opera’s 2011 Faust—and that actorly disposition came to the fore, but never at the expense of his keen musicianship.
It’s a youthful voice, a bright baritone secure throughout its range, with a clean, confident upper register and low notes solidly in place. Worth’s portrayal of Schumann’s young poet-lover truthfully, painfully conveyed his movement from naïve ardor through bitter disappointment to numb disillusion in the 16 Heine poems making up the cycle. The tormented ambiguities of “Ich grolle nicht” bordered on madness; “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet” could not have been more empty; in the fantasy-fueled last song, “Die alten, bösen Lieder,” Worth completed the cycle on a note of barren grief, resolved only in the strangely consolatory piano postlude. Wosner’s accompaniment remained restrained and colorless throughout.
Fast forward to 1858, to Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, and to Christine Brewer’s recital, courtesy of the SFO, at the Lensic last Sunday afternoon.In part, the concert offered a chance to wish Alles Gute zum Geburtstag during the Master’s 200th year, and to do the same for Britten’s centennial. As for the English composer, the afternoon included his collaboration with Auden on the four “Cabaret Songs,” wry miniatures dating from the ’30s and taking their cue from the notorious Berlin clubs of the period. The printed program concluded with four English folk songs in Britten’s unique (I use the word advisedly) and probing arrangements with Joseph Illick at the piano for all the songs.
Brewer had opened the recital with Wagner’s Lieder to a super-sensitive accompaniment by Illick. He then went on to offer one of Liszt’s flashier Wagner paraphrases, the “Spinnerlied” from Der fliegende Holländer followed by another Liszt transcription, the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde. Taking a delighted audience by surprise, for her first encore Brewer sang that “Liebestod.” Twice is never enough.
Unhappily, for Brewer it was just one of those afternoons. Despite her glorious, golden mid-voice, intonation was a constant problem, and that powerful upper register too often sounded strident.