Guest pianist shows prowess with Brahms

11.06.09
Jonathan Biss
Deseret News

By Edward Reichel

There are only two works on the Utah Symphony's all-Brahms program this weekend, but these two are giants: the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor and the Symphony No. 4 in E minor.

Pinchas Zukerman is this weekend's guest conductor, returning to Abravanel Hall after a lengthy absence. With him is Jonathan Biss, a young pianist with whom he has collaborated numerous times over the years, both on the podium and as a fellow chamber musician.

Brahms' First Piano Concerto takes a pianist of stature and talent to make it work, and Biss managed it — and quite impressively at that.

The son of violinist Miriam Fried and violinist/violist Paul Biss, Jonathan Biss is making quite a splash on the musical scene these days, both in the United States and in Europe. And with these concerts, he's finally making his local debut.

At Friday's performance, Biss showed his remarkable technique and amazing musicality as he delved into the emotional outpourings of this large-scale work. And it was absolutely wonderful, especially coming from someone so young.

His perusal of the D minor Concerto Friday equaled that of Horacio Gutierrez's when he played it with the Utah Symphony a few years back. It was as powerful and mesmerizing.

The opening movement was charged with electricity as Biss dove into it after the lengthy orchestral introduction and captured its drama and passion. It was wonderfully crafted and executed and played with near flawless articulation.

Zukerman's accompaniment was also well crafted, but at times balance was a problem between the orchestra and soloist and between sections of the orchestra. Fortunately, that wasn't an issue in the other two movements.

The slow movement was poetic and eloquently phrased. Biss brought a touch of wistfulness to it that was mirrored in the orchestra, and both he and the orchestra captured the lyricism of the music with their fluid and expressive playing.

The finale was bold but tempered with finely molded lyricism, and both Biss and the orchestra brought vibrancy and a nice robustness to their playing.

The Fourth Symphony is actually a good companion piece to the much earlier D minor Concerto. They balance each other nicely if well played. That, however, wasn't always the case with the symphony. Zukerman obviously favors fast tempos in this work, but that isn't necessarily advantageous to the music. And in this case, the piece frequently sounded rushed. There were also no nuances in his interpretation. The entire work came across one-dimensional, unpolished and rough around the edges.

He did, however, elicit some nice playing from the strings, and the horns gave a rock-solid performance.