Pianist Jonathan Biss Plays in La Jolla

Jonathan Biss
San Diego Arts

By Kenneth Herman

A consummate account of Beethoven and Janacek

Jonathan Biss gave a remarkable recital Friday (Feb. 17) in La Jolla, a probing performance that reminded even the most jaded concertgoer why this institution—the piano recital—hangs on.

Some 200 years ago, flashy piano soloists flocked to Paris to slake the cultural thirst of that post-revolutionary capital, but it took Franz Liszt to transform those shallow freak shows of technical virtuosity into the highbrow recital.

He was the first to use the designation “recital,” a term borrowed from literature that suggested an intentional thematic continuity rather than a mere string of showpieces. Biss had more than noble intentions. His program developed with the canny architecture of a Mahler symphony: contrasting Beethoven sonatas to open and close the program, and two dramatic, rarely played Leos Janacek pieces at the center, each separated with some introspective Chopin.

But it was his interpretive acumen that made the strongest impression. With the familiar pieces, notably Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata in E-flat Major,” Op. 81a (known as “Les Adieux”) and Chopin’s “Polonaise-Fantasie,” Op. 62, he stressed insights into structural and motivic relationships that other pianists gloss over. With exceptional clarity and vision, he approached these works as if they were brand new and his audience was experiencing them for the first time.

In Janacek’s dramatic “Sonata 1. X. 1905” and his more impressionistic “In the Mists,” Biss elegantly balanced bold, startling and even operatic emotional surges with the plaintive, folk like traceries that are the composer’s signature traits.

The two-movement piano sonata, Janacek’s most political work, memorializes the death of a young Czech worker in Brno, the traditional capital of Janacek’s native Moravia, who was killed by Austrian troops sent into quell an ethnic conflict between Czechs and Germans. Always conflicted about his earlier compositions—Janacek’s now celebrated operas were composed in his final decade—he destroyed this sonata after its first performance, and had the pianist who premiered it not secretly copied out the first two movements, we wouldn't have a note of this sonata.

I fondly recall an LP featuring the celebrated Czech concert pianist of the last century (and Janacek pupil) Rudolph Firkusny giving his touchstone account of the sonata, and Biss’s interpretation displayed all of the fire and nuance Firkusny lavished on this work, especially in the elegiac slow movement. To Chopin’s late “Nocturne in E Major,” Op. 62, No. 2, Biss brought a sensitive touch that did not attempt to disguise the powerful emotions just beneath the surface, which is another way of saying he excised any sentimentality from a genre that tempts even the greatest pianists to indulge.

His Chopin had a brain as well as a heart, despite the frail, emotional aura in which history has managed to enshroud this composer who possessed a sharp mind and quick wit in spite of physical ailments. The “Polonaise-Fantasie” exuded a calm, almost solemn gravity through its broad introductory sections, and Biss was careful not to prefigure the pyrotechnics that he finally unleashed with such authority and thundering breadth of sonority.

His program-opening Beethoven “Piano Sonata in C Minor,” Op. 10, No. 1, stressed explosive attacks that did not mar the textural balance of this early Beethoven opus, although in the middle movement I thought he telegraphed every gesture in upper-case bold letters. His almost jovial treatment of the Finale, however, redeemed this overstatement.

For his encore, Biss offered a touching account of the sixth movement of Robert Schumann’s “Kreisleriana.” San Diegans last heard Biss in 2007 playing a Mendelssohn Piano Concerto with the San Diego Symphony and giving a solo recital for the La Jolla Music Society. Let us hope that we do not have to wait another four years to hear him play again!