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Pianist delivers skillful, meditative performance

11.02.09
Jonathan Biss
The Oregonian

By David Stabler

Jonathan Biss is not a dazzler. The young American pianist isn't one of those virtuosos who astonishes us with technique, has little to say and can hardly be distinguished one from the other.

As he showed at a piano recital on Sunday in the Newmark Theater, Biss has thoroughly trained hands, incisive clarity and great verve, but he also enriches music with a searching ear and an imperturbable serenity. In fact, his gift for quietude was so noteworthy, a friend grabbed my arm afterward and said she felt as if he were a priest offering communion. Partly it was the unusual program Biss had chosen, but it was also the player himself. For me, his concert felt like meditation, an encounter that went deeper than the mechanics of performing, beyond emotional daydreams.

Born into a musical family -- his mother is the noted violinist Miriam Fried -- Biss offered a one-of-a-kind program on the Portland Piano International series. He began with blizzards of notes, finely voiced, by one of this year's anniversary composers, Felix Mendelssohn, and contrasted that with the sparest of aphorisms by the endlessly creative Hungarian composer György Kurtág.

Instead of fireworks, he closed with the capacious Sonata in A Major by Franz Schubert. Along the way, we heard some remarkably poised Mozart as well.

No Chopin, no Liszt, no Rachmaninoff. None of the Big Romantics.

Instead, single notes hung in the air in selections from Kurtág's Játékok (Games). Delicate chords faded to silence. The ear spanned the pauses between notes. Only "The Mad Girl With the Flaxen Hair," inspired by Claude Debussy's famous piece, rose to dark fullness.

Mozart's Adagio in B Minor (K. 540) followed without applause, a sonic juxtaposition that altered our perception of traditional tonality and its forward momentum.

Biss' Schubert emerged decisively, with plenty of drama and expression. The first theme of the first movement was a bit fussy, but other details gave it a consistent flow. The stasis of the slow movement, even with its middle outburst that sounds like someone experiencing a mental breakdown, was the definition of melancholy.

All in all, a fine afternoon with a remarkable pianist.