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Review of Jonathan Biss CD: "Beethoven: Piano Sonatas"

12.11.07
Jonathan Biss
Audiophile Audition

Having demonstrated the prowess of  his digital temperament in the music of Schumann, Jonathan Biss turns (22-25 April 2007) to the music of Beethoven, whose four sonatas provide ample testimony of his commitment to "truth and poetry." The opening Pathetique Sonata, sans first movement repeat, immediately seizes our attention, with Biss imposing a fierce tension on both the chromaticism of Beethoven's pain and the diatonism of his will. We recall J.W.N. Sullivan's criterion of "recoverable contexts" for a definition of genius; and Biss, like Serkin before him, captures the disturbed energies that permeate each of the movements, even in the midst of lovely song. Engineer Sam Okell's balanced piano sound enjoys a middle range gloss that proves attractive and brilliant at once.

Biss plays the D Major Sonata, with its opening drone-effects, as an experiment in conjunct melody and etched, dramatic riffs. Masses of tone clusters, alternately hefty and diaphanous, glide by in the opening Allegro. For sheer beauty of articulation, Biss sounds much like Perahia, and each can make Beethoven resemble Schubert.  The "secret" to this expansive work, however, lies in the mischievous Andante, which Biss cannily avoids playing too slowly. Moments of skittish demonism mark the Scherzo; and if the Rondo invokes that peasants' bagpipe drone, it serves merely as a prelude to glittering, supple variants.

The last two sonatas on the program, the E Minor and E Major, manifest the internalized compression to which Beethoven had been advancing steadily in his oeuvre. Romantic Agony suffuses the E Minor, exquisitely poised between aspiration and melancholy. The G Major that emerges in the second movement might be smiling through well-earned, repetitive tears. If an Aeolian harp can be said to inhabit the mind--a la Coleridge--the Biss rendition of the E Major, Op. 109 comes mightily close. The close connection between the opening riffs and labyrinthine variants of the last movement become transparently clear through this distilled essence we call the medium of the piano. Fine keyboard artistry throughout makes this a Beethoven connoisseur's must item.