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Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No 5, 11, 12, 26 / Jonathan Biss

Beethoven / Biss
Release Date: 01/10/2012 
Label:  Onyx   Catalog #: 4082  
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Jonathan Biss
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas: No. 5 in c; No. 11 in B?; No. 12 in A?, “Funeral March”; No. 26 in E?, “Les Adieux” Jonathan Biss (pn) ONYX 4082 (74:08)

Jonathan Biss’s Beethoven album on EMI was glowingly reviewed by Colin Clarke in Fanfare 31:4. Having acquired my own copy of it, I, too, was so impressed with the pianist’s playing that I asked to review this new release Read more in what is shaping up to be a complete cycle. On that point, there needs to be a clarification. This new Onyx CD is labeled “Piano Sonatas Vol. 1,” which, from the company’s point of view, I suppose it is. But, as indicated, Biss already recorded four of the sonatas—Nos. 8, 15, 27, and 30—for EMI and thus far, at least, that CD is still in circulation. So, whether he will get around to rerecording those four sonatas for a future Onyx volume or Onyx will eventually acquire the rights to the EMI disc and recycle it on its own label remains to be seen.

C Minor was not a key Beethoven turned to as often as one might think; there are only around 15 opus numbers listed in that key, the majority of them clustered among the earlier works predating 1810 and culminating in the Fifth Symphony (1808) and Choral Fantasia (1809). Nor do all of the composer’s C-Minor works necessarily express the angst, tragedy, and dramatic urgency associated with his Sturm und Drang MO.

The C-Minor Sonata, op. 10/1, with which Biss opens his program, is an example. Completed in 1797, the piece has an almost capricious quality about it with its quirky dotted rhythms, gazelle-like interval leaps, and sudden stops and lurches forward. If the key were major, it would probably sound whimsical, but in minor it sounds a bit furtive. Biss doesn’t overplay his hand by stirring up more of a tempest than is warranted; instead, he adopts a moderate tempo and relatively light touch for the Allegro con brio, bringing out its clandestine character. His Adagio molto is pensive and beautifully sustained, and his Prestissimo, again with feathery touch, gives ample evidence that Biss can play very fast when he wants to.

For all its charms, the B?-Major Sonata, op. 22, would appear to be the Cinderella among Beethoven’s piano sonatas—i.e., the one that’s held in least regard if number of recordings is a measure of popularity. Biss, who provides his own program notes, maintains that both the Sonata No. 11 and its immediate successor, No. 12, the “Funeral March” Sonata, are unjustly neglected and hardly ever heard other than in the context of a complete cycle. In both works, Biss displays considerable agility in bringing Beethoven’s feathery bass lines to the fore in the Allegros and a real flair for poetic expression in the slow movements.

Consistent with his playing in the earlier sonatas, Biss applies his light touch to the “Les Adieux” Sonata as well, but when I say “light touch,” allow me to explain what I mean. It’s not that he’s incapable of producing a true forte or that there’s a lack of dynamic gradation. Rather, his tone never sounds forced; it’s as if he’s gliding effortlessly over the keys without ever exerting an excess of downward pressure. The resulting sound is sufficiently loud when called for, but it doesn’t have quite the full-bodied bulkiness one might expect from the Steinway concert grand Biss is playing. My sense is that he’s aware of what this music would have sounded like on the pianos of Beethoven’s day and is consciously trying to emulate that sound.

This then is not Beethoven pumped up on steroids and played in an aggressive hell-bent-for-leather manner. Biss’s Beethoven is classically, even patricianly poised, and the sound is crystalline and transparent. These are stylish, handsome readings that are sure to wear well over many repeated hearings.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Sonata for Piano no 5 in C minor, Op. 10 no 1 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Jonathan Biss (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1795-1797; Vienna, Austria 
Sonata for Piano no 26 in E flat major, Op. 81a "Les Adieux" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Jonathan Biss (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1809-1810; Vienna, Austria 
Sonata for Piano no 12 in A flat major, Op. 26 "Funeral March" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Jonathan Biss (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1800-1801; Vienna, Austria 
Sonata for Piano no 11 in B flat major, Op. 22 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Jonathan Biss (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1800; Vienna, Austria 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Beethoven by J. Biss May 8, 2012 By a. Racy (canterbury, CT) See All My Reviews "Someone asked Artur Schnabel's son, Karl Ulrich,what was his father's avowed secret of a great performance. His answer: "it's in the proportions". With that succinct answer is a wealth of wisdom. Jonathan Biss'account of the early sonatas of Beethoven come the closest to Schnabel's conception of these wonderful works, usually unjustly neglected, except for the N. 26 (les adieux). Mr. Biss lets the music flow and speak for itself a la Schnabel, with little commentary or 'emphasis'.The art that hides itself is truly inspiring. These performances come the closest to a modern recording by the great interpreter himself, minus the 'blurs' of some scales and notes in the original version. To have access to playing of this caliber in good sound is a treat. It is a pity that he will be recording the rest of the sonatas only one disc a year. I for one will not be around to enjoy the late entries." Report Abuse
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