What a Pianist Is Learning From 32 Sonatas

04.17.12
Jonathan Biss
The New York Times

By Steve Smith

Jonathan Biss Plays Beethoven at Town Hall

For any serious concert pianist, Beethoven is more than just a composer. His music for the piano, and in particular his 32 numbered sonatas, are a summit by which prowess and insight are measured as well as a process by which those qualities can be developed. Far from being fixed on a page, the sonatas live anew in the hands of each performer who comes to them with integrity and passion.

Jonathan Biss, 31, is recording a complete cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas for the English label Onyx, an undertaking he wrote about in a slim but thoughtful e-book, “Beethoven’s Shadow.” (He recorded some of the works previously for EMI Classics.) His series — to comprise nine discs over nine years, including one already available — is a fascinating prospect. In a sense, the pianist who finishes the project will not be the same one who started it.

To judge by a recital Mr. Biss presented on Sunday afternoon at Town Hall, which included three Beethoven sonatas, his journey will be well worth following, even if a few of his present findings seem unpersuasive. He opened his program, presented as part of the invaluable Peoples’ Symphony Concerts series, with the Sonata No. 5, asserting youthful impetuousness with sturdy yet flexible phrasing.

Mr. Biss took the Adagio molto at a pace so achingly slow that the music threatened to lose coherence: a choice in which he is hardly alone. In the tempestuous finale, there was no missing a foreshadowing of the four-note motto that ignites Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, completed more than a decade later.

The familiar Adagio sostenuto opening of the Sonata No. 14 (“Moonlight”) felt ideal, neither self-consciously neutral nor overemphatic and mawkish. Mr. Biss was blithe and frolicsome in the Allegretto but took the Presto agitato at a breakneck pace that now and again resulted in choppy or indistinct passages.

His most compelling Beethoven, technically and interpretively, came in the Sonata No. 26 (“Les Adieux”), which opened with pensive heft, then burst with impulsive urgency. He molded and balanced the second movement, “L’Absence,” exquisitely; the finale, “Le Retour,” was positively explosive in its jittery exuberance.

Between the first two sonatas, Mr. Biss offered a beautifully shaded account of Janacek’s wistful, mercurial “In the Mists.” And before “Les Adieux,” he provided just the right mix of polish, brittleness and macabre humor in David Ludwig’s “Lunaire Variations”: true to its title, a charming and imaginative set of seven variations on the last book of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire.”

Recalled for an encore, Mr. Biss offered the sixth movement of Schumann’s “Kreisleriana”: a placid benediction but, suitably in this context, one with mystery circling below its surface.