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Jonathan Biss brings bold touch to classical piano works

Jonathan Biss
Washington Post

By Patrick Rucker

When it comes to playing Beethoven, Jonathan Biss is certainly no Schnabel. Nor is he a Serkin, a Brendel or a Paul Lewis. He is 100 percent Jonathan Biss, and he plays the piano like no one else. That alone would have made his recital at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue a potent antidote to the cold drizzle Saturday night. But there was a great deal more.

From the moment this tall, lanky, slightly studious-looking young man assumed the stage, and before he played a note, the audience was his. Biss has that perfectly natural, yet immediately communicative presence granted to few artists. When he plays, it is to the accompaniment of absolute silence in the room, the rapt attention that audiences pay to only the best music-making.

His playing is by no means about stylistic niceties, pianistic finesse, subtle colors or beautifully shaped contours. When he drops notes or plays the wrong ones, as he has does occasionally when occupied with more pressing matters of expression, it fazes neither him nor his listeners. His interpretations are bold, strikingly vivid, sometimes even rough-hewn. At the same time, they are deeply thoughtful, unambiguous in their directness and straight from the heart. Ultimately, what makes Biss so compelling to listen to is that every note he plays is imbued with meaning.

A few years ago, Biss, who turns 32 this year, began recording all of the Beethoven sonatas. He chose two from the latest CD in the series, the early C-minor Sonata from Op. 10 and one of the famous subtitled sonatas, “Les Adieux,” to open and close the recital. Sometimes, musicians sound reserved or cautious in the first piece of the program, as they warm to the instrument, the hall, the audience. Biss, on the other hand, plunged headlong into the fray, establishing the emotional terrain of the C-minor Sonata with an earnest intensity as gripping as it was disarming. His secure, intellectual grasp of this piece and of the more extended and complex “Les Adieux” allowed both to unfold with an inevitable logic that was irresistible. Biss’s unqualified identification with Beethoven’s affective ways and means, his ability to inhabit the music wholeheartedly, lent his performances a psychological cohesion and authenticity. The impact of both pieces was so immediate that it felt as if they were over almost as soon as they began.

Two Slavic composers, Chopin and Janacek, provided the perfect contrast and foil for the Beethoven sonatas. Compared with his magnificent operas, much of Janacek’s solo piano music seems fragile. Even when played by an authoritative exponent such as his pupil, Rudolf Firkusny, Janacek’s delicately atmospheric works occasionally failed to create an impression. Remarkably, Biss played the four-movement suite “In the Mists” and the sonata “From the Street, 1 October 1905” with an insight and authority that made them thoroughly convincing. Out of their relatively thin keyboard textures, Biss summoned the pianistic equivalent of Janacek’s characteristically rich orchestral sound. The sonata is Janacek’s response to the death of a student demonstrator in Brno at the hands of Habsburg troops. Biss built its musical argument with such skill and subtlety that the tragic climax was little short of devastating. Unfortunately, the effect of the final pianissimo chords was marred by the noisy air handlers. The folks at the synagogue have yet to realize that the HVAC must be turned off during the music.

Biss’s approach to Chopin is every bit as original as his interpretations of Beethoven. In place of the conventional, seamless legato and coloristic nuance, Biss presents a Chopin who is probing, insistent and nakedly uncompromising. There was little about the E-flat Nocturne, Op. 62, No. 2 that could be described as sensuously beautiful. But its effect was so compelling that, when it ended, six seconds elapsed before applause broke the magic spell. And the “Polonaise-Fantaisie,” a late work often cited as an indication of what Chopin might have achieved had he lived a bit longer, emerged as a vast canvas depicting, with heart-gripping pathos, the sweetest nostalgia, frantic desperation and undaunted courage in the face of overwhelming odds. A piece from Schumann’s “Kreisleriana” was the encore rounding out what was undoubtedly one of the most powerfully eloquent recitals heard in Washington this season.