Pianist Biss Brings out Mozart's eloquence

02.22.08
Jonathan Biss
San Francisco Chronicle

Mozart wrote his piano concertos as razzle-dazzle display pieces, but more than two centuries later - after the far more grueling keyboard athletics of Brahms and Bartók, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev - listeners need showing off of a different kind. We need the sort of canny, probing emotional virtuosity that Jonathan Biss brought to Davies Symphony Hall on Wednesday night.

Appearing with the San Francisco Symphony under conductor laureate Herbert Blomstedt, the 27-year-old pianist made something both tender and vivacious of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat. This was musicianship that went right to the heart of Mozart's eloquence.

That's not to say the performance didn't boast plenty of impressive showmanship. Biss can get his fingers around the keyboard with the best of them, and, although he has an unfortunate tendency to rush the tempo when the going gets heated, his command of the rapid passagework in the concerto's two outer movements came through with wonderful clarity.

But technical display wasn't primarily the point this time. Biss' great gift is the gentle soulfulness of his keyboard tone, a sound that arrives with a well-defined center surrounded by a cushiony aura. And that sound, in turn, is deployed with the rhetorical mastery of a great orator.

Like Richard Goode - the pianist he most resembles musically (and who, coincidentally, will perform Mozart with the Symphony next month) - Biss tends to explore a musical statement with something close to improvisatory fervor. He probes here and gestures there, pursues a line of thought in one direction until it gives way to something else, and always returns to an emotional undercurrent that shapes an entire movement.

On Wednesday, those habits paid off most handsomely in the central slow movement, which emerged as a beautifully calibrated blend of sorrow and stateliness. In both his winsome stretches of unaccompanied playing and his keenly judged interactions with the orchestra, Biss turned the music into an intimate little drama.

The outer movements were more extroverted, naturally, but here too Biss found a way to shade his rhetoric with the occasional muted color; he plays loudly without banging and cuts skillfully to sudden moments of confessional quiet. He played his own cadenzas, which were both idiomatic and - in the finale - enlivened by some original harmonic strokes.

The remainder of the all-Mozart program was simply the latest episode in Blomstedt's strange and wonderful late-career rapprochement with this composer. Mozart's work, which once sent Blomstedt scrambling for Brucknerian profundity with sometimes clumsy results, now inspires him to almost giddy levels of playfulness.

Playfulness is most of what's available in the D-Major Divertimento, K. 251, which opened the program. Conducting a reduced complement of players without a podium, Blomstedt conjured up a breezy, chamber-music spirit that cast these six movements as pure entertainment.

The "Prague" Symphony, making up a short second half, sounded weightier but no less nimble. The opening movement burst out of its slow introduction like a kid released early from school, and the finale sounded crisp and energetic.