Shai Wosner - Impromptu
"You know there's a wonderful term in French when they say a premiere of a piece, they say creation. They say it was created, you know on such and such day. And I think I think that's relevant for every time the piece is played you're creating it. And I think the fact that it's not the same every time is what makes it so exciting."
On his new recording, Impromptu, Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner puts this idea to the test, as he improvises on works by some of his favorite composers.
Now this is interesting to me because many classical musicians with whom I have talked tell me that the idea of improvising is kind of terrifying to them. They might get with musicians from other genres, maybe jazz or even world music, and then they're asked to riff a little bit and it's kind of a scary thought, but you don't seem to be afraid of that. Tell me more about why improvisation is something that gives you a rush?
"I was very fortunate to grow up with a teacher who [taught] composition and theory and sort of everything... This person, whose name was Andre Hydue, was of Hungarian descent who lived in Israel. [He] was a great composer and a real musical thinker and I was very lucky to study with him from age 9 to, I think, until I was maybe 19 or something like that. I really grew up with him. He was a student of Kodaly in Budapest and of Messiaen and Milhaud in Paris. We improvised all the time. So, it wasn't really something that foreign to me. I mean, it was like brushing your teeth. It was like mental floss as they say, because as you know it was refreshing musically.
And when you think about it, you know Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, so many of the great composers were famous for being improvisers. It did not used to be such a foreign part of what a classical musician does. On the contrary, it used to be something that was sort of expected. You can see that a lot of these pieces originate in ideas that they just sort of tried out on the keyboard either by themselves or in front of people. It was something that was done to entertain people or to dazzle people. It wasn't just playing pieces that were fully written out. I do think that there's something very, very alive in doing that. You know that any minute it can come down crashing and fall flat and not just not happen, but at the same time when it takes off, it's amazing because it's like you're riding some little airplane with your ideas [and] your thoughts that you're putting together on the spot."
You're considered to be an exceptional Schubert interpreter and I must tell you it is the four Schubert impromptus on this recording that I found most mesmerizing without even looking at what the tracks were. I literally would be like, "oh my God that's amazing," and then I look down and say, "oh that's Schubert." How do you do that?
"Thank you, first of all. I don't know, I think there is something about Schubert that I think touches me in a very special way. I mean, first of all, the fact that his music combines optimism and pessimism in a very raw way. You know, in a way that's sort of kind of unforgiving. There is a lot of darkness in it, but I find that aspect very, very compelling. And I also think that Schubert has something about his music that is, I like to say often, that he sort of tells it like it is. There's a lot of acceptance of things that are not necessarily pretty in the world. And I think one of the things that makes people feel like his music is so particularly touching, that's the most common reaction that you get to his music, I think, by most people. I don't think that comes from the beauty of the melodies, even though they're very beautiful. I think it comes more from the feeling that he's sort of he's expressing things and letting them happen without judging them, without trying to change them so much. It's one of the reasons why these pieces tend to be longer and sort of take their time to unfold. And for some people he may seem repetitive, but to me it seems like he just lets it happen because it has to be this way. And yeah I think that above everything else that's what I find in his music so...so amazing."
His idol was Beethoven and Beethoven's Fantasy is on this recording as well. How is it different or similar or were Schubert's impromptus perhaps inspired by Beethoven's fantasy?
"That's a great question. Well I think it's a good example of how different they are because even though it's absolutely true that he was, you know, he worshipped Beethoven but he could not be more different, I think. And this is a good example. Beethoven's fantasy is a real improvisation. I mean, you can literally imagine him just improvising that because it's so daring and all over the place and in the beginning, for most of it actually, it seems completely arbitrary, to jump from one idea to another almost inexplicably...or, actually, not inexplicably. And it starts out of the blue and it's just zigzags from one thought to the next. But then at the end you have a section where everything sort of comes together and he ends with a set of variations and the ending could not be more pronounced and clear and emphatic. That's Beethoven. He can be as wild as anybody, obviously, but he needs things to fit together and to sort of belong together in a perfect way. And Schubert is the opposite. If you take the Impromptus...I would say any of them really...their form is much more conventional than this crazy Beethoven fantasy. All of them have basically recognizable forms. You can call them many things but they're very organized in a way and yet, at the end of them, you have a feeling that something is left open.
I didn't realize that Chopin was also known for being an exceptional improvisor?
"Yes. He was just as famous for that as Liszt was at the time and often did that between pieces in the salon. They would play for people. Small groups of people gathered and he would play his short pieces. And in between those pieces he would improvise transitions and you can hear relics of those transitions in pieces that were actually written out. So, the one Opus 36 impromptu in F sharp major starts with a sort of left hand intro that must come from something that was just improvised on the spot. It's like the left hand prepares the ground for the piece to begin. So, he actually left that in the finished piece."
Listen to an extended version of Julie's conversation with Shai Wosner on the New Classical Tracks podcast — available wherever you get your podcasts.
ResourcesShai Wosner - official site
Shai Wosner, Impromptu - Amazon