MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A Double Dose of Beethoven from Jonathan Biss

“Beethoven addresses and consoles the spirit in a way that no other creative artist has managed. He is simultaneously superhuman and intensely, painfully human,” Jonathan Biss observes in his e-book Beethoven’s Shadow. So it’s not surprising that the pianist has devoted so much energy to the sonatas in particular.

Well in time for the upcoming deluge of Beethovenmania in 2020, Biss recorded the complete cycle gradually over the past decade, releasing the ninth and final volume just last month. He has extended his engagement with this music via his insightful online course Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas (free on Coursera).

Biss has also commissioned a project of works by contemporary composers responding to each of the five piano concertos–with memorable results for the Third C minor Concerto, as I reported when he joined the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot last February to play that work and Caroline Shaw’s Watermark.

The 39-year-old Biss’s current season is devoted almost entirely to music by Beethoven. Along with complete sonata cycles in Berkeley, London, and Oklahoma, he played two back-to-back recitals at the University of Washington’s Meany Center this week. The second evening had initially been scheduled for early November, but Biss had to cancel that when he fell ill; he agreed to play that program while he was in Seattle for the December recital.

Biss has divided his complete sonata cycle into seven programs that mingle examples from different points in Beethoven’s career. Wednesday night’s recital at Meany Hall (the fifth of the seven programs in his Berkeley cycle) started with the ultra-compact Op. 79 in G major. This artist’s remarkable musical intelligence was at once apparent, the most rapidfire extension of a phrase registering as a crucial moment of developing variation. From the other direction, when Beethoven is grandiose and expansive, as in the fascinatingly ambitious but neglected early Op. 22 in B-flat major, Biss clarified through a kind of elegant understatement.

This intelligence animated his shaping of the smallest parts and implied their relation to the whole. It also illuminated connections between movements and even between sonatas. There was considerable originality in his “Moonlight” (Op. 14, no. 2), with a welcome but subtle link suggested between the rhapsodic rippling of the first movement and the quasi-improvisatory interpolation near the end of the raging finale — the paradox of Beethoven’s carefully calculated passions. His ever-so-slight rubato in the “Moonlight”‘s first movement found an echo in the phrasing of the slow passage that opens the F-sharp major Op. 78 (another unjustly neglected gem, and one of Beethoven’s own favorites).

Biss’s Beethoven obsession to some degree shows his pedigree from Leon Fleisher (and, ultimately, Artur Schnabel), but he brings to the composer a distinctive sensibility. Along with the thoughtfulness and the sense that something more than music and structure are at stake, Biss homes in on a cantabile quality not always associated with Beethoven — or so it seemed to me from these interpretations, even in the somewhat faster-than-usual lanes he chose for some of his tempos.

It was above all this singing-ness that made Biss’s account of the Op. 109 Sonata in E major, with which the recital culminated, its highpoint. Biss seems especially at home with the idiom of the late sonatas, and he concentrated his finest qualities into this interpretation. Unexpected choices — the shocking violence with which he launched into the second movement, for example — were never ham-handed or indulgent.

Biss emphasized the extremity of contrast among the variations of the last movement, dramatizing the payoff of the ecstasies only adumbrated in the opening movement. He captured the knowing innocence in the return of the main theme with an effect reminiscent of the parallel moment in the Goldberg Variations, when Bach simply restates the Aria at the conclusion of his journey.

Since the bonus performance on Thursday evening — program two of his seven-part division — took place at Meany’s 238-seat Studio Theatre, it was in many ways a very different kind of experience than on the preceding night. At times it felt almost like being in a salon, a privileged guest allowed to listen in on the star performer — though, to be sure, Biss managed to create the illusion of intimacy in the much vaster hall upstairs as well. On the negative side, the dry acoustics were not as flattering.

Technically, Biss also ran into a number of difficulties in the the first half that momentarily seemed to throw him off course. At his best, his technique is of the sort that avoids calling attention to itself, merely a tool to probe for the meanings he wants to convey, but his thoughts here at times outran his fingers.

It was all still riveting. Biss was a marvelous advocate for the exuberance of Beethoven’s sense of invention and sheer possibility in Op. 7, an early epic. He paced the constituent melodic parts of the Largo with genuine mastery, playing with subtle pauses the way a painter uses blank spaces. The Adagio molto of the C minor Sonata (first of the Op. 10 set) became a study in musical brushstrokes as Biss carefully shaped its intricate tracery. But his tempo choice for the final prestissimo turned out to be too driven, an uncharacteristic miscalculation.

These two early works were counterbalanced by two of the best-known sonatas. I found Biss’s take on the “Tempest” (second of the Op. 31 set) deeply satisfying in the way he channeled the dark energy of the first movement but allowed for maximal, elegiac expansion of the famous “voice from the tomb” passage in the first movement. The clipped urgency of his finale set the stage for the parallel concluding work of the program. Indeed, Biss made clear the rhymes that exist between the “Tempest” and the “Appassionata”: the mysteriously subdued winding-down of their first movements, with their tensions left to be worked out, and the relentless perpetual motion of their finales.

The middle movement of the “Appassionata” was treated less as an interlude between two hurricanes than a substantial set of variations that foreshadow something of the late style. For Biss, facing the challenges embodied in Beethoven’s piano sonatas involves more than undertaking a musical or artistic achievement. His desire to convey the depth of Beethoven’s own experience, charted in these notes, brought to mind a therapist onto whom the patient’s issues are projected, with a countertransference back onto the audience.

Review (c) 2019 Thomas May. All rights reserved

Filed under: Beethoven, pianists, review

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