Saturday, November 30, 2019

Israeli pianist Ishay Shaer in a beguiling solo recital at the Israel Conservatory, Tel Aviv

Photo: Jurriaan Brobber

With the Israel Conservatory’s Chamber Music Series moving into its 31st season, the opening event of the Piano Series featured Israeli artist Ishay Shaer in a solo recital on November 23rd 2019. 


Ishay Shaer opened the recital with Robert Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” (Scenes of Childhood) Op. 15. Thirteen pieces chosen by the composer from a set of thirty he had written, the work was a gift to Clara Wieck in 1838, two years before they were finally married. It came with Schumann’s message to her that she should laugh at the titles but take their performance seriously, adding “you will have to forget yourself as a virtuoso”. Regarding the considerable discussion around the pieces as to whether the “Kinderszenen” were written for children or adults, Schumann himself described them as being reminiscences of an older person to be played to adults, but did not deny that several children were in his mind when composing them. Shaer’s playing of the “Kinderszenen” showed deep enquiry into the nature of each piece, his spontaneous and personal playing in “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples” inviting the listener to join him in the richly poetic world of Schumann’s miniatures and the Romantic piano. Hearty gestures brimming with a sense of delight and well-being pervaded such pieces as “Quite Happy”, “At the Fireside” and “Almost Too Earnest”, with vigour, whim and incisive finger-work firing the playing and musical games of “A Curious Story”,  “Blind Man’s Bluff” and “Frightening”; noble festivity dominated “An Important Event”, with young, joyful, unbridled energy breaking out in “Knight of the Hobby-Horse”. Shaer’s playing of “Tr√§umerei” (Dreaming), often referred to as the centrepiece of the work, was cantabile and fragile but (happily) free of the too frequently heard sugar-coated interpretations of the piece. Instead, he lures the listener into discovering where each same phrase-beginning will lead, both melodically and harmonically. Following his pensive and tender playing of “Child Falling Asleep”, Shaer draws together the work’s threads with “The Poet Speaks”, his playing suggesting rumination, wonder and the posing of philosophical questions, all exquisitely phrased and coloured with his generous but deft use of the sustaining pedal. 


From the wide-eyed world of the child to life seen through the eyes of an adult reviewing the contrasting states of human existence in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor Op.111 (1822).  For the composer’s last piano sonata and one of his last compositions for piano, it engages the tonality of C minor, a key he reserved for works of unusual intensity. The sonata opens with a fast-moving, contrapuntally rich sonata-form movement in C minor, with just one ensuing movement - a slow-moving, harmonically-anchored set of variations in C major. Shaer’s playing of the opening movement takes on board not only its “Maestoso” marking but no less what follows - “Allegro con brio ed appassionato” - as he sets the scene with stark, jagged leaps and raw utterances, engages in the movement’s extremes of mood and gives articulacy to its canonic writing, dovetailing all into a restless, uncompromising and unpredictable canvas, the first movement’s end finding peace cushioned in the major key. (I never cease to be puzzled by Beethoven’s claim that his last two sonatas were “not very difficult”).  Shaer takes time to spell out the subject of the Arietta, taking the listener with him into the inner workings of Beethoven’s mind and into the composer’s daring, imaginatively-wrought and liberated concept of variations. No gesture goes unnoticed by this artist. Tension and lyricism alternate as the music explores the extremes of high and low registers and of both sounding simultaneously, the movement’s copious trills luring, exhilarating, crystalline and never static. Shaer’s playing of the Arietta was fresh, imaginative and seamless.


Franz Liszt had a particular liking for the music of Franz Schubert, considering him to be “the most poetic musician who ever lived”.  From 1833 to 1846 Liszt transcribed 58 of Schubert’s Lieder for piano solo, performing them during his years of concert touring, taking them out of their original intimate music salon venue and bringing them to the public concert platform. In “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) from Goethe’s “Faust”, Shaer creates a sotto voce whirring effect of the spinning wheel, staging the song’s agenda against it, with the love-struck Gretchen’s anxiety mostly remaining under wraps till the climax of the song when the whirring stops dramatically and startlingly, to then resume as the work then describes in haunting tones the distracted Gretchen lost in thought. Shaer’s performance of it was so gripping and affecting that one tended to ignore the stringent technical challenges facing the pianist in such a virtuosic arrangement. And then to a narrator's reflections on the passing of Schubert’s “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” (To sing on the water), with Shaer’s spellbinding touch descriptive of shimmering water as the poet likens the flight of the soul to the gliding of the boat. The song melody is woven through the gentle movement of the water - first in the tenor, then the alto, and finally the soprano voice - as the work builds up with increasing intensity of colour through the three verses. An extraordinary performance and so poignant even without Graf Friedrich Leopold zu Stolberg-Stolberg’s lyrics...or was it?


The recital concluded with Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit” (Devil of the Night), three tone poems inspired and derived from vivid and macabre poems by the French Romantic poet Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841). First performed in 1909, Ravel himself called them “three romantic poems of transcendental virtuosity”; indeed, they constitute one of the most highly original, imaginative, evocative and technically difficult works in the entire piano repertoire. The first piece portrays Ondine, a beautiful, contriving water sprite who aims to attract mortal men to her magical kingdom through seductive singing. Served by agile, filigree-fine finger-work, Shaer’s playing, negotiating the movement’s many augmented chords, tremolos, arpeggios, and arabesques, creates a mood piece of luminosity and buoyancy, of cascading figures, delicacy and multi-layered tutti, its textures threaded with fine-spun melodic voices. Never rising above mezzo-piano, “Le Gibet” (The Gallows), with its eerie, unrelenting b-flat octave bell tolling ever present, emerged bleak, sparse and spine-chilling, yet richly dissonant. Shaer’s playing of “Scarbo” (The Gremlin), volatile, violent, and brimming with nervous energy, bristles with a myriad of finely-shaped motifs, with prudent timing between gestures and innumerable contrasts, representing the malicious, grotesque dwarf who changes his shape, size and colour at will.  With its repeated notes and two frantic climaxes, this is the crowning point of technical difficulty of the three movements. A veritable tour-de-force, it likes to take you by surprise as it signs out in a puff of smoke! Ravel reportedly said about Scarbo: “I wanted to write an orchestral transcription for the piano.”


Born in 1983, Ishay Shaer is one of today’s leading young Israeli pianists. He has performed in Europe, the UK, South America and the USA to great critical acclaim and has won both national- and international prizes. He began piano studies at age seven with Mrs. Hanna Barzilai, later studying under Dr. Asaf Zohar, Prof. Tomer Lev and Prof. Arie Vardi, with further instruction from artists such as Daniel Barenboim, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Murray Perahia and Matti Raekallio. In November 2017, Shaer released an album dedicated to late solo piano works of Beethoven (Orchid Classics), garnering glowing reviews. In recent years, he has established himself as a reputable chamber music performer, collaborating with renowned artists and chamber ensembles. 



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