An American in the Paris Symphony … the other at the piano – NDR Symphony with

Jonathan Biss
Die Welt

With his glasses and the concentrated look, Jonathan Biss seems like someone who likes to solve tricky equations and who knows logarithmic tables by heart. By heart, though, also is how the young American pianist knows Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 B-flat-Major op 19, which he played with the NDR Symphony Orchestra in its third subscription concert on Monday.

Indeed, of all the arts, music is the one closest to mathematics. And without any question, the highly gifted son of the violinist-couple Miriam Fried and Paul Biss is a musician who knows absolutely precisely how to calculate. He is by no means a brooding tinkerer, but a shaper with heart and soul to whom, despite all the accurateness of his playing, the expression of a phrase and the interplay with the orchestra are more important. Already in the orchestra exposition he participated with gestures, imitating the movements of the first violins when they lifted their heads before a pickup and he understood his solo part as part of the whole from the first cue on.

His articulation was very delicate, every musical coherence was phrased clearly and the agogic was musical. All this reminded of the great interpretations of exactly this piece by the Argentinean pianist Claudio Arrau, who might have served Biss as a model. The take-over of the rich orchestra-cadenza in the Allegro assai succeeded beautifully through the triple answer of the piano and Biss molded the Andante intimately. In spite of all the warmth, he kept a distance throughout all times, as if he was gazing at an exquisite diamond from all sides and enjoying the thousands and thousands of refractions of light.


Matching the soloist, also this evening's conductor had traveled from the far Untied States. Right at the beginning, James Conlon conducted Mozart's "Paris Symphony" D-Major KV 297 with a decisiveness which let the piece seem like a dramatic opera overture.

It was a real pleasure to watch his gallant beat technique and to feel the musician's reaction to his alert glance and to his constant cheerful smile. He formed the Andante gently and floatingly, which struck a light-hearted tone of serenading in the violins, which were brightened by the principal flute. What a pity that exactly here the metal mouthpiece of one of the horn players plopped on the wooden stage floor.

The prince from Andersen's fairy tale "The Little Mermaid" didn't plop onto the stage floor, but into the thundering ocean. The rescue of the heir to the throne by the selfless water-creature, the entrancing love of the mermaid for a human being and her tragic renunciation of all that she had dreamed of and what she thought to have gained already, persuaded Alexander Zemlinsky to write his picturesque orchestra fantasy "Die Seejungfrau".

Conlon and the NDR-Symphony played the piece with a sound oriented along Wagner. Zemlinsky indicates the whirling and bubbling water with descending figures, as opposed to ascending air bubbles. His mermaid is by far not only delicate, but spirited and passionate up to self-abandonment. Under Conlon's leadership, she therefore met us as an energetic daughter of the Rhine instead of a timid Undine, Melusine or Rusalka.