Seating Schumann Cozily at the Center of His Universe

03.13.13
Jonathan Biss
The New York Times

By Zachary Woolfe

Jonathan Biss at Zankel Hall

The pianist Jonathan Biss’s excellent recital on Tuesday evening at Zankel Hall was part of his series Schumann: Under the Influence, a pop-album name for a thoughtful season-long immersion.

In a range of concert programs, a new album and a long essay that was released as an Amazon Kindle Single, Mr. Biss places Schumann in context, making an unsurprising but cleverly handled case for the composer as a fulcrum of music history. Mozart and Janacek, featured on Tuesday, are the key complementary figures, but Purcell, Dvorak, Berg and the young New York composer Timothy Andres are also in the mix.

At Zankel Mr. Biss’s clear playing exaggerated neither the fury nor the lyricism in Schumann’s “Phantasiestücke” and “Davidsbündlertänze” cycles, both written in 1837. His lines always had both flowing smoothness, as in the liquid left hand and sweetly melodic right of “Fable” in the “Phantasiestücke,” and a touch of steel at the edges.

Though he has his tempestuous moments, Mr. Biss’s Schumann is more moderate and polished than bipolar. (Mozart, in Mr. Biss’s accounts of the Minuet in D and Adagio in B minor from the 1780s, came across as the moodier and more unhinged composer.) These were lucid, flexible performances that built through the evening, more powerful in their totality — the full, breathlessly inexorable span of the “Davidsbündlertänze,” for one — than as miracles of vivid color or moment-by-moment drama.

Pianists like Piotr Anderszewski and Leif Ove Andsnes have also programmed Schumann and Janacek — both troubled men whose works have autobiographical tendencies — in tandem in recent years. But Mr. Biss has gone a step further, interspersing 5 of the 10 miniatures from the first book of Janacek’s cycle “On an Overgrown Path” (1900-11) with the eight parts of Schumann’s “Phantasiestücke.”

Interweaving movements from different works, and in this case different centuries, can feel like a gimmick, but here it made almost uncanny sense. Both Schumann’s “Warum?” (“Why?”) and, inserted after it, Janacek’s “Listek Odvanuty” (“A Blown-Away Leaf”) gave the same impression, subtly executed by Mr. Biss, of melodies not quite sure where they’re going. The twitchy changeability of Janacek’s “Pojdte s Nami!” (“Come With Us!”) spoke to the same quality in Schumann’s “Traumes Wirren” (“Dream’s Confusions”), which followed it.

After his riveting “Davidsbündlertänze,” Mr. Biss’s encore was a movingly introverted vision of the brief yet rich final movement of the “Gesänge der Frühe” (“Songs of Dawn,” 1853), one of the last things Schumann wrote before his final descent into mental breakdown.