Thursday, December 28, 2017

Pianist Ishay Shaer's recently issued disc - LATE BEETHOVEN

Photo: Oren Hayman
Considered one of the leading Israeli pianists of his generation, Ishay Shaer has performed extensively throughout the world, also winning national and international prizes. In recent years, he has been establishing himself as a reputable chamber music performer. His arrangement for piano trio of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No.17 “Tempest” was received with enthusiasm. Here are some thoughts and impressions on his recently issued disc  - “Late Beethoven” - recorded in 2017 in the Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK (recording producer: Andrew Keener) for the Orchid Classics label.

Piano Sonata No. 28, Op. 101 is the second of the series of Beethoven's "Late Period" sonatas, with the composer’s writing now taking on a more personal character, but steeped in a sense of freedom and fantasy. It coincides with the composer’s decision in 1816 to Germanize the Italian terminology traditionally used in musical literature. Beethoven himself described Piano Sonata No.28, composed in the summer of the same year, as "a series of impressions and reveries". By this stage of his life, his deafness was almost total,  leaving him to grapple with his own isolation, hence the self-contemplative character of the later sonatas. One pitfall of pianists performing these highly personal works is over-identification, in which the performer assumes Beethoven’s suffering as his own. Fortunately, this is not the case with Shaer, a young artist who approaches each movement with objective, fresh energy, presenting the opening movement “Etwas lebhaft, und mit der innigsten Empfindung”  (Somewhat lively, and with the most heartfelt expression) with relaxed warmth and tenderness of sound. Shaer takes on board the second movement’s nervous dotted Romantic-style march in playing that is carefully delineated, disquieting  and exciting, but ever free of coarseness of touch. Following his sensitive reading of the poetic and introspective third movement, with its flashbacks to the opening movement, he gives articulate expression to the fourth movement’s rich, high-powered offering of ideas - fugal, waltz-like, muscular and occasionally delicate - its occasional outburst of the falling third motif of the subject there to be heard. A well-balanced reading of the work.

Beethoven’s three sets of Bagatelles, referred to by him as “Kleinigkeiten” (small things) consist of  Op.33  published in 1803, the 11 “New” Bagatelles Op.119 (1823) and the Six Bagatelles Op. 126 (1825). From the composer’s sketchbooks, we know that these years of publication are not necessarily relevant to when each individual piece was composed. Ishay Shaer’s recording includes the Op.119 and 126 Bagatelles. In his playing of the Op.119 Bagatelles, in which he displays clarity and a fine concept of the transparent fingerwork required for essentially Classical moments, he presents the listener with the delightful and unconfined yet disparate world of the miniature. Reading deeply into the meaning of each small delicacy and, indeed, into Beethoven’s directives, he evokes the coy naiveté of No.1 (Allegretto), the whimsical dialogue between soprano and bass in the following Andante con moto, the intrinsic sincerity of the Andante cantabile (No.4) to be contrasted by the fuller, galloping setting of a one-minute Risoluto. He opens No.6 (Andante-Allegretto) with the  Beethoven’s “posing of questions”, to be answered by a fantasia of varied utterances. After the diversely created fabric and concluding outburst of No.7 (Allegro, ma non troppo), he invites the listener to bask in the pensive tranquility of No.8 (Moderato cantabile)...but not for long, for here come the enticing sweeping arpeggiated Vivace moderato (No.9) and the syncopated urgency of the minuscule syncopated Allegramente (No.10). The final bagatelle (Andante, ma non troppo), measured and kindly, seems to step out,  restoring graceful order in gently embellished playing. As we listen, we find each piece  stamped with Beethoven’s genius, with no hint as to the financial distress, illness and drawn-out lawsuits undergone by the composer in the early 1820s.  Shaer’s playing, refreshingly minimal in his use of the sustaining pedal, speaks of textures, moods, contrasts and registers in a language of gestures and imagination, furnished with both tasteful spontaneity and control.

Beethoven began the Six Bagatelles of Op 126 towards the end of 1823, after having almost completed the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, and finishing them early in the following spring. Aware of their excellence, he described them as “6 Bagatelles or Trifles for solo piano, some of which are rather more developed and probably the best pieces of this kind I have written”. Ishay Shaer’s performance of them supports this, showcasing the subtle craftsmanship of Beethoven’s last work for piano and how the composer defies conventional forms, only to engage in his own sophisticated structures. Shaer makes a profound study of the pieces’ rich array of emotions - the noble tranquility of No.1, the lush, tender musings of No.3 and the unabashed and semplice Quasi allegretto of No.5. These are, however, punctuated by the drama, capriciousness and split personality of the No.2 Allegro and the fast flow of ideas and moods of the larger-scale Presto of No.4, to conclude with the gripping momentary outbursts and feisty fragments of No.6, these surrounding an expansive lyrical Andante. A fulfilling listening experience!

In Ishay Shaer’s handling of Piano Sonata No.30 in E-major Op.109, he enlists his splendidly rich and articulate piano technique to bring alive the musical text of this most unique work, a work indicative of the experimenting carried out by the composer in his late artistic endeavors. Following its opening, curiously seeming to take up in mid-phrase, he plays out its text with freshness and wonderment, exploring each gesture, each new tonality and the expressive meaning of each dynamic change. In its fast flow of changing gestures, the Prestissimo (2nd movement) springs forth, its erupting, insistent and scherzo-like intensity juxtaposed with mysterious and intimate material. However, it is the last much lengthier movement that offers the listener the greatest wealth of Beethoven’s originality of expression, its set of variations arising from its “gesangvoll” (cantabile) opening subject. With brilliance and the most nimble of fingerwork, the artist  takes the listener through and beyond the pianistic kaleidoscope of the variations, leading into one of the most emotional climaxes in all of Beethoven’s music and back again to the warm, empathic balm of the movement’s opening. Ishay Shaer’s deep enquiry into the sonata’s text brings out the sheer beauty and bloom of this work.

In this recording, the listener is invited to relish both the lush timbre of the piano used for the recording and the disc’s superb, mellifluous sound quality. Ishay Shaer’s profound, insightful performance reflects the enigmatic mix of simplicity and complexity of these late Beethoven pieces. Hearing Shaer’s interpretations of them proves that late Beethoven repertoire is not reserved only for the world-weary!


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