Jonathan Biss is a thrilling piano talent

01.27.11
Jonathan Biss
Philadelphia Inquirer

By Peter Dobrin

A fleet, stealthy entrance. Then thunder. An unexpected shiver gives way to a warm gust. Salvation? No. Back into the abyss.

Beethoven is the author of that emotional schematic - only the first two eventful minutes of his Piano Sonata in F minor (Op. 57),  ownership of the emotional centerpiece of his Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital at the Perelman Theater Tuesday night.

His concert - the Chamber Music Society's 1,000th since its founding 25 seasons ago - was thrilling, which was comforting in more ways than one. Biss, 30, has a career shifting into gear with commercial recordings, high-prestige appearances, and a recent appointment to the faculty of his alma mater, the Curtis Institute of Music. Curtis is good at nurturing individuality - this is the school, after all, that honed keyboard personalities as opposed as Lang Lang and Ignat Solzhenitsyn - and this concert confirmed the arrival of an artistic voice like no other.

The tone is exquisite, and the technique masterly without drawing attention to itself. But the power comes in how Biss feels the music. Those first two minutes of the Beethoven packed a punch because nothing was allowed to wallow. He moved apace, offering not a sliver of silence between Beethoven's severely shifting moods and voices, creating the impression of an argument among contrarians. The last angry outburst was particularly affecting.

Biss is a judicious regulator of mood. Sometimes his expressivity comes from digging deep into a particular phrase to reveal a hot glow, as he did in the third movement. But he also knows you can't sustain that kind of intensity, and in fact, it's most effective when it follows laying out the material in the coolest terms possible. There's nothing random about any of this. The game plan for the entire movement - piece, even - sounded carefully plotted.

That was certainly the case in Schumann's Fantasy in C major (Op. 17), which can spill out in a disorganized heap. Again, he has an unusual way of feeling this piece, finding the quiet singing quality in introspective sections that in other hands might have been swallowed up by the more flamboyant material. If it was a fantasy bound, it was bound only by the belief that in Schumann, the sincere ultimately has greater impact than the turgid.

Janácek's Piano Sonata 1.X. 1905, "From the Street," came with a fine, well-developed treatment of its tricky counterintuitive rhythms. And Bernard Rands' Three Pieces (2010), dedicated to Biss, with its light layer of jazz upon dissonance, was handled with great agility and dash.

The encore was yet another startling personal statement, a revelation even: the "Andante cantabile" from Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 10 in C major (K. 330). Lovely that Biss is so utterly disconnected from the cliche and false profundity that often bogs down this music. It was straightforward, unaffected grace until the last poignant bars, which, hushed and delicate, brought the curtain down with nearly devastating beauty.