Pianist Jonathan Biss connects with Beethoven

Jonathan Biss
The Philadelphia Inquirer

By Peter Dobrin  

Like a half-remembered dream, the opening of Beethoven's Opus 101 Piano Sonata in A Major arrives in bits and pieces.

It seemed all the more like something emerging from the mists in pianist Jonathan Biss' carefully constructed Thursday night Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital at the Kimmel. As the last piece on the program, the Beethoven looked back on everything that came before it. The incredible economy of the first movement was as concise as Schoenberg's Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19, played earlier. The headlong euphoria of the second movement echoed Schumann, represented earlier in the program by the Waldszenen, Op. 82.

The I-am-lost-to-the-world solitude of Beethoven's third movement - well, it's really like nothing else. And so you couldn't help feel that with this juxtaposition, Biss was laying claim to Beethoven as supreme innovator, Second Viennese School notwithstanding.

It was one thing to conceive of the kinds of relationships that ricocheted around the Perelman stage all night, and quite another to have something to say interpretively about each. Biss may be still searching for the saturated emotional potential of the Waldszenen, as fully a chapter-book of fairy tales in sound as Schumann ever wrote. The pianist has yet to stare into the eyes of pure evil in "Vogel als Prophet," although he lined Schumann's returning fanfares in other movements in proud, mellow golds. 

There has never been any doubt that Biss has the tools to do anything he wants. His studious precision served Schoenberg well, and he encompassed an entire emotional world (fervent, conciliatory, overwrought) in Berg's Op. 1 Piano Sonata. Beethoven, however, who bookended the program, came across as his primary love. The Piano Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1 was exquisitely conceived. Biss emphasized the dissonances of the first movement, responsible for much of the tension, without becoming bogged down.

The third movement was a world unto itself. Its central major section is an occasion for lightness for other pianists - Daniel Barenboim, for instance. But for Biss, those few bars of an upward flourish of both hands is treated not as something buoyant and carefree as much as creeping up to the edge of losing control of one's emotions. This is Biss the individualist, and here he is as provocative an individual as any of his great keyboard predecessors.

The encore was a discrete antidote to complexity: an "andante cantabile" from Mozart's K. 330 Sonata in C Major of lean expressiveness and admirable simplicity.