Reviews of Jonathan Biss' Schumann/Dvorak Recording with Elias Quartet (Onyx)

12.10.12
Jonathan Biss

“This coupling of two of the most beloved nineteenth century works for piano and the Elias String Quarter and Jonathan Biss is one of the most enjoyable and compelling chamber music recordings released this year.

The joyful ebullience of the Schumann’s opening is perfectly captured, the impression it leaves all the more striking for the care lavished on the subtlest of contrasts. The aching grief of the slow movement is all the more eloquent for its poised restraint. Biss and Elias play to the strengths of the scherzo which, without difficulty, can devolve into endless note spinning. Their success is due to scrupulous attention to the smallest details, combined with an unerring sense of shaping individual phrases, as well as the hierarchy of phrases within larger sections.

It is an inspired reading, entirely original, deeply touching, filled with risks posed and triumphantly met and when not actually ablaze, exudes a kaleidoscopic luminosity and heartfelt warmth. Biss has long championed Janacek in his recitals, though he has yet to record any. Perhaps his affinity for this other musical poet of Bohemia explains some of the stunning success of the Dvorak Quintet. From Marie Bitlloch’s richly hued intoning of the pregnant opening theme, resistance is futile. An exquisitely proportioned give and take in both textures and tempos is everywhere in evidence.

Long before the arrival of the second movement, Dvorak’s constant vacillation between joy and regret, passionate ardour and melancholy are portrayed here with a sympathy and wholehearted identification that is infectious. Cooler heads and calmer hearts than mine may be able to resist tears listening to the Dumka; I could not. Dovrak’s skilful evocation of this Slavonic folk ballad, veering between extremes of tempo virtually without transition, lies at the affective heart of the quintet. Biss and the Elias, through their purity of sound and hand-in-glove fluctuations of rubato, achieve a near ideal realisation of this poetic, fragile utterance. This movement alone equals, if not surpasses, some of the most celebrated recordings of the Quintet, including those of Curzon with the Vienna Philharmonic.”
International Record Review (Patrick Rucker), December 2012

"From the outset this is a reading of Schumann’s Quintet where a self-generating spontaneity sees the unbridled happiness of the opening movement pass almost in a trice. Nor does the slow movement’s impetus get sidetracked, as is so often the case in pointing to detail, yet the ensemble is meticulously precise and the Elias’s intonation spotlessly clean. In a scherzo taken very quickly; Jonathan Biss’ crisp articulation is an essential ingredient and the joyful mood of their opening movement returns in an unhurried finale where the texture is unfailingly transparent. Without reservation I commend this as a first choice."
CD Reviews (David Denton), December 2012

"From the very opening, the most imperceptible variation of pulse suggests an intimate engagement with this music, once again demonstrated by the way these players ease into the second subject [...] – and notice how the changed the melody’s character entirely when it returns in the recapitulation. [They] manage to hold certain falling into the all-too-common fallacy of applying ersatz ‘interpretation’ simply by slowing down for the quiet bits. It’s a Schumann Quintet to place among the best of the rest and a Dvorak that I simply couldn’t stop listening to."
David Threasher, Gramophone, December 2012