Jonathan Biss review: Radiant Schumann

Jonathan Biss
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

The beautiful recital that pianist Jonathan Biss gave in Herbst Theatre on Sunday night was a double-barreled undertaking - at once a sensitive and brilliant display of musicianship and an impassioned plea for the influence of Robert Schumann.

Biss has been on a Schumann kick of late (or at least he's made it public lately - one suspects that his devotion to the composer is of long standing). His recital, one in a series presented throughout the year by San Francisco Performances, juxtaposed Schumann's music with that of two later composers, Janácek and Berg, whose work was shaped by the earlier master.

I'm not sure Schumann's influence in the history of piano music is quite as undervalued as Biss would have us believe (orchestral music is another story). But if the connections his program drew were somewhat less than revelatory, his playing - dark, shapely and keenly felt - made a powerful case for them.

The argumentation was most explicit during the evening's first half, when Biss interspersed the short movements of Schumann's "Phantasiestücke" ("Fantasy Pieces") with excerpts from Janácek's piano cycle "On an Overgrown Path." To hear these short character studies back to back and side by side was to be newly struck by how definitively Schumann created a lasting template for the keyboard miniature.

Far more than Chopin, it was Schumann who transformed the simple three-part form going back to the Baroque into a flexible and often surprising suite of usable ground plans. And Janácek, writing in the first decade of the 20th century, took those ideas in directions that were at once fertile and faithful to their sources.

Biss underlined the relationship even more starkly by joining movements that were linked in tone or theme - Schumann's opening "Evening," for instance, followed by Janácek's similarly crepuscular "Our Evenings," or a pair of light-footed movements (Schumann's "Fable" and Janácek's "Come With Us!"). And the two composers' shared creative techniques - particularly the similarly dense harmonies and the invocation of folk melody - found expression in Biss' phantasmagorical playing.

After intermission came a sublime account of Berg's early Piano Sonata, whose moody harmonies and endless thematic transformations seemed more like an artistic grandchild - even a stepchild - to Schumann's rhetorical directness. Still, Biss cloaked this piece in sonic wonder to the point that its roots hardly mattered.

To close, there was a loving rendition of Schumann's "Davidsbündlertänze," that long series of inventions that show off the composer's capacity for infinite variety and imagination. As an encore, Biss played Schumann's final completed work, the last of the five "Songs of Early Morning," offering it as a memorial tribute to the late San Francisco Symphony oboist William Bennett.