The Phillips Collection has presented Israeli pianist Shai Wosner several times over the years, and the relationship has deepened considerably with a two-concert series of Schubert’s final six sonatas that began Sunday. The miniseries is a journey through some of the most achingly profound music ever conceived, music in which Schubert limns a universe of emotional states.
With his unique feeling for harmonic color, Schubert takes the listener through dark, mysterious or ecstatic places, each movement a miniature odyssey. Since there is so much behind these notes, we react differently to each performer’s illumination of them.
Let me say up front that Wosner is a superb pianist, who plays without any mooning or showboating, only tightly focused concentration. He eschews my most hated Schubert affect, that of pulling back the tempo when the music goes into remote keys, and in the opening movement of the D. 894 sonata, he counted carefully during the long notes, the languid rhythms retaining their shape and momentum. The whirlwind triplets in the first movement of the D. 850 sonata, and the rapid double thirds in the D. 894 finale were impeccable.
All that said, Wosner’s Schubert feels slightly businesslike. There is much that is serious, even angry, in this music, but there is also playfulness and childlike wonder. These elements were flattened in the otherwise admirable forward momentum. The great Russian artist Sviatoslav Richter played these works at a funereal tempo, but he caught every fleeting wisp of feeling, within an implacable pulse. Here, the brisk, gleaming pianism was more of the story. Still, Sunday’s traversal of the final three sonatas will cap a major event of the season.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect photo credit. The photographer was Jamie Jung, not Marco Borggreve.
Shai Wosner concludes his series with Schubert’s Sonatas No. 19, 20 and 21 at 4 p.m. Sunday at the International Student House, 1825 R St. NW. For ticket information, visit phillipscollection.org.