Biss made Schubert sound experimental.

Jonathan Biss
Washington Post

Schubert, in the wrong hands, can be made to sound facile, repetitive and too cozy by half. That wasn't the case when pianist Jonathan Biss played the "Reliquie" Sonata on Sunday at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.

By emphasizing contrasts in this unfinished, two-movement work -- legato right hand set against staccato left, pounded fortissimo statements turning on a dime into phrases of whispered intimacy, odd juxtapositions of meter pointed up rather than played down -- Biss revealed the composer's ingenuity at upending listener expectations and his ability to marry extremes of emotion, sometimes within a single measure. Without undue overstatement, Biss made this lesser-played little masterpiece sound downright experimental.

If Biss's approach to Chopin -- a selection including a Ballade, Nocturne, Barcarolle and three Mazurkas -- was more straightforward, it was never dull or predictable. Maintaining a steady pulse within each piece, he found myriad ways to inject subtle rubato into the musical line, gently nudging and tugging at the tempos in a way that lent his playing an illusion of on-the-spot improvisation.

Earlier in the recital, Biss turned in a beautifully poised reading of Mozart's C Minor Sonata, K. 457, followed by five miniatures from György Kurtág's compendium of piano pieces, "Játékok" ("Games") -- including a hilarious sturm-und-drang send-up of Debussy's "Girl With the Flaxen Hair." But while Kurtág's reputation as a musical jokester has come to define him, Biss's haunting performances here reminded us that the composer's scores -- even the funniest ones -- have a spooky, unsettling side.