Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: in C,
Birthday Elegy for Judit. Hommage à Schubert
Jonathan Biss (pn)
WIGMORE HALL LIVE
30 (69:03) Live: London 5/12/2009
Jonathan Biss, still in his twenties, is having a most impressive and well-deserved career. He has already recorded several CDs
covering a wide range of repertoire, mostly from the 19th century, and is a star in New York concert circles. For those who are not familiar with his biography, he has a distinguished musical lineage: his parents, Miriam Fried and Paul Biss, are both violinists, and his grandmother was the noted cellist Raya Garbousova. Jonathan Biss, who studied with Leon Fleisher, pupil of Artur Schnabel, at Curtis Institute and credits him with being both a wonderful teacher and mentor, has appeared as soloist with most of the major American orchestras, as well as such noted European orchestras as the London Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw. With this Wigmore Hall Live presentation, he joins several other distinguished recitalists, such as the singers Felicity Lott and Margaret Price, the pianists Mieceslaw Horszowski and Imogen Cooper, and others who have been recorded in this series.
Biss is first and foremost a sensitive and thoughtful musician with a solid technique, fleet fingers, and a rich sound, whether playing loudly or softly. The degree of control and accuracy in this live performance is astonishing. He pays careful attention to phrasing and dynamic contrasts, and his tempos are generally well chosen. In the first movement of the C-Major Sonata his concept of
is on the fast side, compared with that of the splendid Finnish pianist Ralf Gothoni on Ondine, who plays it at a much more stately pace. (Schubert’s choice of the word “moderato” in the first movement of the great B? Sonata, D 960, as well as in other works, has engendered a bewildering variety of tempo choices by various pianists.) In Biss’s performance, perhaps it is youthful ardor dictating the choice. In any case, his performance is flexible and musically solid in shaping both movements of D 840.
The A Major Sonata, the middle sonata of the trilogy of Schubert’s last piano works, is also beautifully played. In the first movement (with exposition repeat taken), Biss has a way of toying slightly with the strong martial rhythm, giving it a sprightly feeling. The development section of this movement, with its expressive modulations, is one of the many marvels of Schubert’s music, and Biss plays it with suitable feeling. In the slow movement, the stormy middle section bursts out with almost terrifying violence following the haunting first section, which he plays with unaffected simplicity and faithful adherence to Schubert’s phrasing in the accompaniment. The Scherzo is played with verve and a biting staccato, the Rondo finale at a nicely moving tempo, slightly slower than that of Schnabel. (I mention Schnabel’s performance of this Sonata because Biss’s view of it so strongly resembles that of Schnabel, especially in the way he pushes the tempo slightly in certain passages.)
If there is one oddity in the playing of this pianist, it is his old-fashioned way of playing the left and right hands slightly out of synch, most often on a downbeat. It is a mannerism associated with older pianists, who used it to emphasize some Romantic gestures, but certainly grew out of favor in the last century, and sounds rather out of place in the immaculate, straight-forward playing of this young artist.
The Kurtág pieces are brief in the extreme (1: 42, 2:19), somewhat in the manner of Webern. In his explanation about programming them with the Schubert, Biss writes that “because Kurtág has such deep roots in the past and is the most sensitive of souls,” he and Schubert make a very natural pairing. After hearing the Kurtág, I don’t understand this idea at all—and especially in the “Hommage à Schubert.” I have not heard a great deal of Kurtág’s music, but I do not see a relationship to anything but the immediate past. However, I don’t doubt Biss’s sincerity in his rationale for pairing the two composers on his program, and I would not let this interfere in my appreciation of his enormous gifts, and a whole-hearted recommendation.
FANFARE: Susan Kagan
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