Jonathan Biss

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 8 "Pathétique", 15 "Pastorale", 27 & 30

(Digital Download - EMI Classics #)

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The youthful Jonathan Biss is one of the few new American pianists to have made a splash on both sides of the Atlantic, and he takes a definite stride forward with this recording of much-played Beethoven sonatas. In taking on Beethoven he faced the challenge of standing out from the crowd, a challenge to which many pianists respond by playing with special drama and intensity in one way or another. Biss' solution is different: his Beethoven is of a self-effacing kind not too often heard these days, and quite compelling in its cumulative effect once you retune your ears. He uses the pedal sparingly, he only rarely rises to fortissimo dynamic levels, and he generally favors restraint over shaking the piano around. The opening Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, "Pathétique," one of the two or three most-played of all the Beethoven sonatas, is, in Biss' reading, also one of the few that comes off as truly "pathetic" as a whole -- the opening movement is carefully reined-in, and the middle and final movements are delicate and slightly sad rather than stormy. The finale of the Piano Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90, is a straight drink of pleasant Mendelssohnian lemonade. Biss is not uniformly successful. When faced with a passage where a degree of unpleasant tension is undeniably integral to the music, he tends to express that tension by pushing the tempo rather than increasing the power level, and this tends to disturb the symmetries that are essential to Beethoven's music. Hear the second theme of the first movement of the "Pathétique," with the rushed accompanimental figure in the left hand -- Biss seems to be striving for an effect of nervousness, but it comes off as a kind of mannerism. The Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28, "Pastoral," is perhaps the weakest on the program; of all Beethoven's early sonatas, this one seems to hint most at the mystical exaltation that was the counterpoint to the drama in the composer's later music, and little of that comes through here. The final Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109, however, is very strong. Subtlety is Biss' strong suit, and he handles the odd, quasi-improvisatory first movement with confident elegance as he rounds off Beethoven's arpeggios with unusual quick turns. The big variation finale does not rattle the frame of the piano as some do, but the contrast between staccato and rising ecstasy expressed in big chords is vivid and clean. The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Biss approaches each work as a living individual, and he convinces the listener of his belief, expressed in his notes that "it is an unspeakable honor to have lived, and to continue to live, with this music." This is fresh Beethoven, well worth hearing on its own, and indicative of still better to come.

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