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Pianists Schiff and Biss explore familiar sonatas' inner structures

01.07.08
Jonathan Biss
The Dallas Morning News

For all the hand-wringing about the demise of the CD, there's been quite a rush of new Beethoven piano-music recordings lately. As if shelves weren't already groaning under cycles of the composer's complete sonatas, with pianists from Artur Schnabel to Stephen Kovacevich, the Hungarian Andras Schiff and the Briton Paul Lewis are at work on new surveys. (Colleague Lawson Taitte recently reviewed Mr. Lewis' third volume.)
In different ways, both Mr. Schiff and the young American Jonathan Biss supply wonderfully refreshing takes on this thrice-familiar repertory. (Actually, Mr. Schiff's chronological survey reminds us yet again how few of the Beethoven sonatas - mostly the ones with nicknames - really are repertory staples.)
Both make us hear the music in new ways, but without overdone point-making. Read their self-written program notes - Mr. Schiff's is actually a dialogue with musicologist Martin Meyer - and you'll realize that these are very smart, probing musicians. They don't just feel the music; they've deeply explored its structures and harmonic imports.
Mr. Schiff's two-disc set represents the fifth volume in his Beethoven survey. If his Schubert cycle (on Decca) sometimes seemed a bit dutiful, every note of his Beethoven radiates sheer delight. Playing a pearly-toned Steinway in Zürich's reverberant Tonhalle, he presents Beethoven not as a toga-clad Fifth Evangelist, but as a suave, playful experimenter. He relishes the music's surprises.
This just may be the Beethoven cycle for the decade.
Mr. Biss, in a one-off Beethoven disc, is perhaps a little more conventional, but no less gratifying. Son of the violinist Miriam Fried and a protégé of Leon Fleisher, at age 27 he already sounds like a mature master, deftly balancing probity and warmth. (That he's also a thinker of some depth, as well as whimsy, is evident on his blog at http://jonathanbiss.com/home/category/blog/.)
Mr. Biss' tone is rounder than Mr. Schiff's, his effect more inner, his recording less sharply focused. His playing has a sensuousness one doesn't often associate with Beethoven, every phrase lovingly caressed, but with no loss of rhythmic backbone.
Here, clearly, is one of the most promising of the younger pianistic talents. (He comes to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in March for a Mozart concerto.)

Beethoven
Grade A: Piano Sonatas Nos. 8 (Pathétique), 15 (Pastoral), 27, 30. Biss (EMI Classics)
Grade A: Nos. 16, 17 (Tempest), 18 (Hunt), 19 (Waldstein), Andante favori. Schiff (ECM New Series, two CDs)