Jonathan Biss review: Schumann showcase

Jonathan Biss
The San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

Give Jonathan Biss credit for independence of mind. In a year devoted elsewhere to anniversary celebrations of Verdi, Wagner, Britten and "The Rite of Spring," the deft, thoughtful pianist continues his exploration of the music of Robert Schumann.

Following on his extended recital with San Francisco Performances, Biss came to Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday afternoon to undertake the composer's Piano Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony. In partnership with guest conductor Roberto Abbado, Biss produced a warm, robust and somewhat muted account of the work, very much in keeping with his philosophical approach to Schumann in general.

Not that there wasn't enough keyboard pizzazz on display to keep listeners contented. Biss has all the technical prowess necessary for this concerto, and he gave a solidly dexterous performance, even if in the first movement he tended to rush the tempo whenever he could get free of the orchestra for a few minutes.

But his main concern was evidently to explore the music's symphonic angle - the thematic interweavings that join the two outer movements, and the rhapsodic vein that comes most clearly to fruition in the central intermezzo even though it's present throughout the work.

The lyrical sweetness of Biss' playing shone through most vibrantly in the slow movement, and on this occasion the unbroken join between that and the finale - a trick lifted from Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto - carried with it a continuity of spirit as well. Abbado led the orchestra with all the requisite directness and fervor.

There was more Schumann to begin the program, in the form of the rarely heard overture to the never-heard opera "Genoveva." Abbado and the orchestra struggled a bit to reach common ground on rhythms and phrasing in the slow introduction, but once the music took off the results were powerfully focused.

Also powerful, if a little less focused, was the U.S. premiere of "Scena," a brightly colored 1998 tone poem by the Italian composer Ivan Fedele. The 17-minute piece is full of bold dramatic gestures - the moody string of disjunct piano notes that opens the piece, bursts of jangly orchestral sound that pop in to punctuate sustained string harmonies, and several extended passages of action music dominated by the brass.

Yet it was hard on a first hearing to perceive quite how these elements fit together, or where the center of the presumptive narrative lay. The momentum begins to flag most severely right before the end - which Fedele rescues with a concluding stroke of wonderful wit and delicacy.

Abbado gave the piece a vivid and often persuasive reading, and did the same with Schubert's Third Symphony to close the program. The Third is a piece that can begin to sound flimsy if it outstays its welcome, but Abbado gave it a brisk, vivacious rhythmic profile that made it sound like a Rossini overture. The effect was magical.