American pianist Biss charms crowd

03.20.13
Jonathan Biss
Calgary Herald

By Kenneth Delong

Honens Presents: Jonathan Biss, piano Rozsa Centre

The dust has only just settled on the last Honens International Piano Competition, but the Honens people clearly want Calgarians to remember the world of great piano playing and the magic it can bring.

In this spirit they continue to present important pianists to the Calgary public in the time between competitions. On Tuesday night, at the intimate surroundings of the Rozsa Centre, there was an opportunity to hear the Calgary debut of American pianist Jonathan Biss.

It has now been a few years since Biss made his initial breakthrough the piano pack to emerge as an important artist on the concert scene. I first heard him on the radio playing the Schumann piano concerto, and I recall stopping my car by the side of the road until the concerto was complete-so absorbing was the performance.

And it was Schumann that Biss chose to present as the featured composer on his Calgary debut. Biss has generous-sized hands, a tremendous help in delivering the fist-full of notes that fill Schumann's scores. He has a complete piano technique and he was also tremendously well prepared, the music delivered with complete authority and without hesitation in either the playing or the interpretation.

For me this was a very fine recital, and one that offered real challenges for the listener as well. The concluding Davidsbundler-tanze, Op. 6, is a large work, containing many poetic miniatures, most of them in a virtuoso vein. But the music is rather eliptical in its speech and not so immediate as music compared to some of Schumann's other works. Very few pianists I have heard can deliver this work with the conviction and brilliance heard last night. But as brilliant as the piano playing was, it was the soft playing and the distillation of interior moods that were equally compelling.

The thickness of Schumann's writing often tends to defeat pianists, especially since the cumulative demand on strength is so great. It is here that Biss was particularly impressive, his playing showing no fatigue, the execution superb.

Biss was not given a very good instrument to play, and it was evident that he had to bring all his considerable skills to project the music fully and to achieve the range of colours needed for such complex music. I suspect that with a fully responsive instrument, the actual sound might have been even more enticing.

The program also included an extremely passionate and rather fast account of the Berg Piano Sonata, a hyper-emotional work, to which Biss brought the needed complexity of sound and emotional intensity.

The first half contained two works that were intertwined. This is an idea that works well or not upon individual taste. The idea is to change the sound pal-late rapidly by contrasting, in this case, short pieces by Schumann and by Janacek, each functioning as a type of commentary upon the other. It was an interesting idea, but I might have preferred to hear the two works separately. But there could be nothing but praise to be offered for the execution of the pieces, the Schumann fervent, the Janacek suitably desiccated.

This was a most impressive visit to the city, and I hope there will be many more Calgarians who will turn out to hear him when he returned in the Fall. Jonathan Biss: remember the name.