Tuesday 24 March 2015

Jonathan Biss re-starts his Beethoven piano sonata survey.

Jonathan Biss - Beethoven piano sonatas Vol 4
Beethoven piano sonatas nos. 6, 10, 19 and 23 (Appassionata); Jonathan Biss
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 17 2015
Young American pianist has re-started his survey of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas

The young American pianist Jonathan Biss is currently working his way through the complete Beethoven piano sonatas with the latest CD on his own label (produced in collaboration with Meyer Media), the earlier volumes having been issued on Onyx Classics. With this volume Biss starts at the beginning with  Beethoven's first piano sonata, Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2 No. 1, Sonata No. 6 in F major, Op. 10 No. 2, Sonata No. 19 in G minor, Op. 49 No. 1, finishing with Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 "Appassionata".

Born into a family of musicians, Biss's parents are violinists and his maternal grandmother is the player for whom Samuel Barber wrote his Cello Concerto. Biss studied at the Curtis Institute from the age of 17 with Leon Fleischer. Biss himself now teaches at the Curtis where, last Autumn he offered an on-line course in Beethoven's piano sonatas, which is promised to re-start this year.

Now, I have to start this review with an admission. I don't normally listen to Beethoven piano sonatas, and they are something of a world away from the music that interests me most. My own pianism did not get much beyond playing Mozart's piano sonatas, so that much of this music is embarrassingly unfamiliar. So what follows is something of an exploration with an innocent ear and I have refrained from giving the disc a star rating.

Beethoven's first piano sonata, written 1795, was dedicated to Haydn and starts with that most common of gestures, the Mannheim Rocket. But once beyond this, it is clear that Beethoven's talent was not one for being confined. Throughout the disc, I was repeatedly struck by how, even in the most conventional of sonatas, Beethoven refuses to be constrained and of course in the Appassionata he goes completely wild and seems to delight in wrong footing the listener.

Regarding Biss's playing, the first thing that struck me was his extreme level of technical skill so that the fast passage-work is wonderfully even at all times and that even under duress in the Appassionata he always plays with poise. But the characteristic which I most noted, was the beauty and expressiveness of his articulation. Notes are always articulated finely, it is just the degree which is controlled and whilst this might sound artificial it in fact sounds superb. And I just loved that clarity and expressiveness of Biss's fingerwork. Others might want something different in this music, and certainly Biss does not seem to be an overtly temperamental performer, but do give the disc a try.

Sonata No. 1 opens with an Allegro which Biss starts with perky delight, leading to a movement in which he combines crisp articulation with vivid excitement, impetuousness with a sense of rubato. In the sonata's slow movement, Adagio, Biss develops the delicately sung melodic line into rich melisma, again with a very personal sense of tempo flexibility. The elegant Menuetto has a very characterful middle section whilst the concluding Prestissimo is vivid and fast with wonderfully even fingerwork. Biss's approach is very much about controlled excitement, but there are graceful moments too and a rather surprise ending.

Sonata No. 6 is in three movements, the opening Allegro has a varied and complex texture to which Biss brings a sense of wit and a use of space, particularly in the opening. He brings out the way Beethoven uses the various textures in the structure, always with a sense of suppressed excitement. The Allegretto combines a misterioso feel with poised drama, and rhythmic grace in the middle section. The concluding Presto is fast indeed, and full of crisp wit. It is keenly vivid, with a both vitality and elegance in the playing.

Sonata No. 19 was probably an early work, and intended as a pedagogical tool rather then being for publication. In just two movements, the Andante is lyrically graceful with Biss giving us some finely articulated melismatic passages. The Rondo: Allegro is not particularly fast, but Biss fills the movement with infectious energy and joie de vivre.

Sonata No. 23 is something else, nicknamed Appassionata (the name is not Beethoven's) it was written in the period 1804-5 and published in 1807 and is one of Beethoven's most tempestuous piano sonatas (only superceded by the Hammerklavier Sonata). Perhaps not coincidentally, its genesis dates from the period after Beethoven started to deal with the effects of his hearing loss being permanent.

The opening Allegro assai starts in a graceful and rather intriguing way, but then the piano explodes with long descending passage-work phrases. These two ideas war with each other, and Biss certainly relishes the contrasts with graceful moments being interrupted by explosive nervous energy and brilliant fingerwork, always combining firmness with dexterity. Andante con moto begins slow and grave, with a theme which describes a mood rather than being innately memorable, but Beethoven then develops this in a set of variations, that allow Biss to develop both the technical and emotional pull of the music. There are moments of quiet intensity, but Beethoven clearly goes off on one at the end of the movement, and Biss is stunning in the drama here. The final Allegro ma non troppo combines furious fingerwork with dramatic choirs, and Biss shows a terrific command of the material but still with a fine clarity brought about by his deftly control, yet powerful fingers.

There are, I think, five more volumes to come before Biss completes his cycle of the sonatas and he has a number of other mountains to climb. If his performances are as impressive as those on this disc, then the cycle will be something striking indeed.

The disc can be bought direct from the Meyer Media website.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) - Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2 No. 1 
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) - Sonata No. 6 in F major, Op. 10 No. 2 
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) - Sonata No. 19 in G minor, Op. 49 No. 1 
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) - Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 "Appassionata".

Jonathan Biss (piano)
Recorded 2015 at the American Academy of Arts
MM15029 1CD [62.27]
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