Pianist at Last Has Carnegie All to Himself

01.23.11
Jonathan Biss
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

The thoughtful American pianist Jonathan Biss has played on the main stage at Carnegie Hall as a soloist with several orchestras. His vibrant account of Schumann’s Piano Concerto with James Levine and the Met Orchestra in 2008 comes to mind.

But on Friday night Mr. Biss, now 30, gave his first solo recital at Carnegie. As he said in a recent interview in The New York Times, to play a recital at the storied hall was a personal milestone. On this snowy winter night he drew an enthusiastic audience and played very well.

On paper, his program — Janacek’s Sonata “1.X.1905,” a recent work by Bernard Rands, Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata and Schumann’s Fantasy in C — looked like an interesting if not especially adventurous offering of diverse pieces. But in revealing program notes Mr. Biss explained his clear reasons for selecting each work.

The Moravian-born Janacek’s mesmerizing sonata, subtitled “From the Street,” was written in reaction to a wrenching public event in 1905: a young carpenter was killed during a demonstration to demand an autonomous university where courses were conducted in Czech, not German. Janacek was an early enthusiasm for Mr. Biss, and he gave a rhapsodic account of this elusive work, which alternates spiraling, misty outbursts with staggered phrases of elegiac melodies.

Mr. Rands wrote Three Pieces for Piano last year for Mr. Biss, who has been playing them on tour. This was the first New York performance. The pieces were inspired, Mr. Rands notes, by the piano music of Scriabin, Debussy and Ravel. In a way Scriabin’s restless flights, Debussy’s intense tranquillity and Ravel’s dazzling colors are evoked at once.

“Caprice” is all runs and riffs and fitful chords. In the slow middle piece, “Aubade,” melodic fragments are woven into strings of thick yet lucid chords with hints of Berg, Messiaen and Bill Evans. “Arabesque” is an exercise in quick repeated notes and skittish spurts. Mr. Biss played this brilliant 13-minute group of pieces with nimble technique and myriad colorings.

Somehow the Janacek and Rands set the mood for Mr. Biss’s murky, moody account of Beethoven’s “Appassionata.” Mr. Biss writes that as an enthralled 13-year-old he loved this music for its “desperate intensity,” and his performance here was alive with youthful, impetuous energy.

Schumann wrote his Fantasy, an epic, idiosyncratic 30-minute piece in three movements, in homage to Beethoven. But Mr. Biss admitted in the interview to having chosen the Schumann for this occasion because it was “probably the piece that I feel most strongly about in the world.” Except for a few tangled moments in the daunting second-movement march, he played a poetic and surging performance. The reflective finale ended in rapt repose.

Mr. Biss, or so it seemed, wanted to leave his audience with the calming major chords that end the Schumann. But after several curtain calls he played an encore: the tender slow movement from Mozart’s Sonata in C (K. 330), a mellow way to conclude an important night for an admirable musician.