Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1 - Nos. 5, 11, 12 & 26 'Les Adieux'

Jonathan Biss

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Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1 - Nos. 5, 11, 12 & 26 'Les Adieux' Review

by James Manheim

To judge by the "Vol. 1" on the cover of this Onyx-label release, the young American pianist Jonathan Biss appears to have embarked on a cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas. Biss has also issued an e-book on the subject of playing Beethoven, making reference to the Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel as a model. His playing reflects that model, with fast tempos, sweeping views of structure, and lyricism reserved for a certain type of noble Beethovenian melody rather than indiscriminately applied. At his best, what you get is Schnabel minus the smudged notes that sometimes make his profound interpretations a bit infuriating; Biss has formidable technical equipment. The collection of three early sonatas to kick off the set, followed by the Piano Sonata No. 26 in A flat major, Op. 81 ("Les Adieux"), is an odd one, with none of the early sonatas usually being counted among the favorites or even middle-level favorites. But Biss does a fine job in the Piano Sonata No. 11 in B flat major, Op. 22, with real momentum in the outer movements that never lose coolness and clarity. The Piano Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10/1, is also very strong; Biss captures the jumpy, restless quality of the work and points up every bit of its small-scale harmonic experimentation. There are a few holes here; you miss the sweep of Beethoven's first funeral march in the Piano Sonata No. 12 in A flat major, Op. 26, and the passion in the first movement of Op. 81. But the finale of Op. 81 is satisfying on every level, and in general the album is both a fresh traversal of these early sonatas and a promising indicator for the set as a whole.

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