Bis! to Biss

04.21.09
Jonathan Biss
San Francisco Classical Voice

"Bis!" is a demand for encore. Biss is Jonathan, a 28-year-old pianist who played a fascinating recital Saturday at Herbst Theatre, under the aegis of San Francisco Performances.

Before the second half - an all-Chopin offering, capped with a splendid encore of the Andante from Mozart's Sonata No. 15 in C Major, K. 545 - Biss presented a consistently compelling program, brilliantly played. Mozart's Sonata in C Minor, K. 457, impressed with the opening Allegro that was robust, powerful, quite different from the usual "elegant" Mozart - and Biss' approach was all to the good. The Adagio and closing Allegro were less of the "in your face" school, but again, "just right."

The most impressive part of the evening was a combined performance - that is, played without a break - of five pieces from György Kurtág's Játékok (Games) and Schubert's rarely played Sonata in C Major, D. 840, Relique.

Displaying the same passion in speaking as in playing, Biss talked briefly about the Schubert, speculating that one reason for its rare appearance in concert halls is that it's "unfinished," having only two movements. Rather than a disadvantage, Biss said, having only the Moderato and Andante gives the sonata a completeness of its own, addition to which would have been impossible or unwise.

The clarity, precision, and outstanding articulation in playing Kurtág and Schubert were deeply impressive. The crystalline piano miniatures are reminiscent of Bartók's Microcosmos.

They were Antiphony in F-sharp from Book II, Les Adieux (in the Manner of Janacek) from Book VI, Portrait (3) from Book III, La Fille aux cheveux de lin-enragée from Book V; and the amazing Birthday elegy for Judit, for the second finger of her left hand from Book VI. This last piece bore out Kurtág's famous saying that "I keep coming back to the realization that one note is almost enough." It was more than one note, a gorgeous little piece, all played with one finger.

To hear Biss on-line, there are lots of samples on his Web site. For Kurtág piano works, see these and other YouTube samples.