Jonathan Biss: Music and Didactics

United StatesUnited States Schumann, Janáček, Mozart: Jonathan Biss (piano), Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York 12.3.2013 (SSM)

Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 interspersed with
Janáček: Selections from On an Overgrown Path, Book 1
Mozart: Minuet in D Major, K. 355
Adagio in B Minor, K. 540
Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6

The program list above has been slightly modified from the Carnegie Hall Playbill to match the information for this concert on Jonathan Biss’s site. “Interspersed with” was included in the site’s concert listing but not in Playbill. It came as a surprise to me: I am not against didactic concerts but I like to know what is in store.

What if I specifically chose to attend this recital to hear Schumann or Janáček? I might be disappointed to discover that I would be listening to a hacked-up version of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, interspersed with selections from Janáček’s first book of On an Overgrown Path. Part of the experience of listening to a collection of works is appreciating and understanding its entire structure, and that was not possible here. When I hear a collection of small pieces the anticipation of what’s to come is part of the pleasure.

It is beyond me why Jonathan Biss states in his Playbill introduction that “the Fantasiestücke are not so much a cycle as a collection of character pieces” but the movements of Davidsbündlertänze “lose much of their meaning – if not their beauty –when heard in isolation.” All of Schumann’s collections of piano pieces are thought out. Simply hearing the consistent use of a fast tempo alternating with a slow tempo implies intentionality on the part of the composer. Nothing prevents a pianist from playing these pieces individually, but if the whole is played the pieces should be done one after the other as the composer intended.

Even if we accept Biss’s premise with regard to piece-to-piece relationships, his pedagogical argument is sophomoric. Which composer has not been influenced, sometimes strongly, by the works of an earlier composer? Soler by Scarlatti, Mozart by Haydn (and vice versa), Schumann by Chopin or Liszt by Schumann: any composer who chooses a format used by earlier composers is going to reveal their influences. Chopin’s Preludes might not have been written if Bach had not created his two books of preludes and fugues. Bartók may still have written his sonata for solo violin, but a movement marked tempo di ciaccona without Bach’s Chaconne? Unlikely.

There was no doubt that Biss was committed to his thesis. He played both the Schumann and the Janáček with ardor and conviction although ultimately each composer suffered from the disconnect of interspersion. Would Biss’s interpretations of these pieces be different if he were not trying to prove a point? Certainly adding Mozart to the formula makes clear the untenability of his approach. A simple if slightly eccentric Minuet by Mozart is given the heavy weight of being, according to Biss, “Mozart at his most unapologetically ridiculous.” Really? The trio portion of this minuet with its slight dissonance was played by Biss as if it were Stravinsky in his neoclassic phase. The more substantial Adagio in B Minor, K. 540 is, Biss claims, “an unrelieved human catastrophe in musical form.” I have no idea what this means, but how does either Mozart work reveal a connection between him, Schumann and Janáček? Biss again states the obvious: “Mozart, too, had an extraordinary feeling for drama and psychology in music.”

By the time Biss sat down to play with true drama, devoid of any ideology, the Davidsbündlertänze, my exasperation had nearly taken the best of me. Hearing Schumann performed without any overhead in a well-judged, if slightly too romantic manner redeemed somewhat the first part of the concert.

Stan Metzger