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

An Interview with Beatrice Rana

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Beatrice Rana: photo (c) Nicolas Bets

Beatrice Rana was in town recently to perform with the Seattle Symphony. I was fortunate to have a chance to interview this remarkable young pianist — Silver Medalist at the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition — who has become known for her consistently soulful, honest performances and probing musical intelligence.

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Beatrice Rana has just released a new album of Ravel and Stravinsky. Excerpts here.

Filed under: pianists, profile

Clara Schumann, Music’s Unsung Renaissance Woman

The 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann’s birth is quickly approaching. Here’s a story on her legacy I wrote for The New York Times:

Schumann is among the most celebrated names in the classical music canon — for most people conjuring the poetic and intense work of Robert Schumann, the Romantic master.

But when the Schumann in question is his wife, Clara, the name should remind us most of the frustrating lack of recognition still accorded female composers.

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Filed under: chamber music, Clara Schumann, New York Times, pianists

Brahms Times 2: Hamelin Displays Mettle And Might

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Marc-André Hamelin performed both Brahms piano concertos at the Bellingham Festival. (Photo: Catherine Fowler)

I spent a lovely day in Bellingham on Sunday. Here’s my review of Marc-André Hamelin’s program of the two Brahms piano concertos at the Bellingham Festival of Music for Classical Voice North America.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. – Rhapsodizing about his summer getaway in the lakeside resort of Pörtschach, Brahms observed that “the melodies fly so thick you must watch out not to step on one.” It’s easy to imagine the composer armed with a melody-catching butterfly net and setting out for a stroll through the idyllic campus in coastal Washington, where the Bellingham Festival of Music takes place over three weeks each July.

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Filed under: Brahms, festivals, pianists, review

Late-Night Liszt

I’d never heard Till Fellner live before but am now a convert. He played this as an encore after his rainwater-clear account of Mozart’s K. 503 C major Concerto on the first half of the finale concert of the 2019 Easter Festival in Lucerne on Palm Sunday.

Filed under: Franz Liszt, Lucerne Festival, Mozart, pianists

Caroline Shaw’s New Piano Concerto Premieres in Seattle

Very excited–especially after getting a foretaste in rehearsal–to hear the world premiere tonight of super-talented Caroline Shaw’s Watermark, her piano concerto for Jonathan Biss.

Check out the video above for the composer in a master class on her own music. And here’s an interview from yesterday with KING-FM’s Dave Beck on Watermark.

Filed under: Caroline Shaw, commissions, pianists, Seattle Symphony

RIP Randolph Hokanson

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Last night, at the age of 103, the pianist Randolph H. Hokanson died in Seattle. Randy’s passing marks the end of an era, but he lives on in the artistry and creative spirit he imparted to generations of pianists.

I was incredibly fortunate to get to know him in his final years, starting with my interviews to prepare this profile in 2014 — when he was a young buck of 98:

“I’ve seen it all!” announces Randolph Hokanson before losing himself in a mischievous gale of laughter. With someone else, you might be tempted to indulge that as hyperbole. With Hokanson, who was born in 1915 in Bellingham, it’s tempting to take it literally.

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Filed under: pianists, Randolph Hokanson

A Weekend at Tippet Rise

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Jeffrey Kahane playing the “Goldberg” Variations. Credit: photo is by Emily Rund, courtesy of Tippet Rise Art Center

My report for Musical America on my recent trip to the Tippet Rise Art Center for a weekend of chamber music, sculpture, and nature has now been posted. PDF version here: Tippet Rise-pdf-07.30.18_MusicalAmerica

FISHTAIL, Montana–Lots of music festivals beckon with the prospect of a temporary retreat from the mundane. Tippet Rise Art Center takes this to a remarkable extreme, thanks to its geography. Located on a 10,260-acre working ranch in rural south-central Montana, Tippet Rise requires nothing less than a pilgrimage just to take in one of the musical weekends of this year’s summer festival season, spread over eight weeks between July and September.

Filed under: Bach, John Luther Adams, Musical America, pianists, review, travel

Igor Levit Is the 2018 Gilmore Artist

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Congratulations to Igor Levit for winning the 2018 Gilmore Artist Award, a distinction conferred to recognize “extraordinary piano artistry with some of the most generous financial support given in the musical arts. The $300,000 award is conferred every four years to an international pianist of any age and nationality following a rigorous and confidential selection process.”

The Gilmore Artist Award “is made through a non-competitive process. Pianists are nominated by a large and diverse group of international music professionals.” Past recipients include Rafał Blechacz (2014), Kirill Gerstein (2010), Ingrid Fliter (2006), Piotr Anderszewski (2002), Leif Ove Andsnes (1998), Ralf Gothóni (1994), and David Owen Norris (1991).

I met Levit when the Republican presidential primaries were still in progress and the idea of Donald Trump winning the election seemed absurd, but even then I recall his very serious concern about the awful possibility. As Michael Cooper puts it in this first-rate New York Times profile, Levit “has stood out by emerging as the de facto pianist of the resistance.”

My profile of Levit for Steinway & Sons from 2016:

It’s early February, over lunch before his Seattle debut later in the evening, and Igor Levit can’t stop talking about how thrilled he is to be touring the United States.”

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Filed under: music news, pianists

Conrad Tao: Leaving the Comfort Zone

My new profile of pianist and composer Conrad Tao for Steinway  is now online:

HIS NAME HASN’T changed, but mentally splicing the twenty-three-year-old Conrad Tao with the child prodigy who first came before the general public more than a decade ago is likely to make you do a double take.

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Filed under: Conrad Tao, pianists, profile

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