Assessing Two Pianists—in One

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Schoenberg, Schumann, and Berg: Jonathan Biss (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 22.1.2015 (BJ)

Beethoven: Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 2 No. 1
Schoenberg: Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19
Schumann: Waldszenen, Op. 82
Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1
Beethoven: Piano Sonata in A major, Op. 101


There are clearly two Jonathan Bisses. There is the widely admired young pianist whom I praised for his partnership with tenor Mark Padmore earlier this season, declaring: “He had the full measure of both Schumann’s textural and tonal subtlety and Fauré’s poetic understatement, and in Michael Tippett’s enchanting Boyhod’s End, with its blend of introspection and exuberant dance, he matched every nuance captured by Padmore.” Then there is the Biss whom, on a couple of earlier occasions, I have excoriated thus: “Rather than singing, Biss’s tone at the top of the keyboard merely clanged. And such flexibilities of pulse as could be discerned seemed to stem not from interpretative intent but from a fairly unstable handling of technical challenges. The result was a prevailingly meaningless gabble, which made it hard for listeners to know, at any given moment, where exactly we were in the measure.”

 But rather than ascribe this dramatic difference to some sort of Multiple Musical Personality Disorder, I began, at the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital now under review, to discern some kind of consistent pattern underlying the whole wide range of Biss’s interpretative virtues and the reverse. By far the best playing on the evening in question came in such passages as Schoenberg’s miniature musings, as the “Vogel als Prophet” movement, with its Langsam, sehr zart marking; in Schumann’s Waldszenen; and in the quieter, and may I say less unpleasant, passages in the Berg Sonata.

 “Vogel als Prophet,” in particular, drew some surpassingly delicate tone and phrasing from Biss, and the flexibility of pulse here was the flexibility of freedom, not of insecurity. Berg’s Opus 1 is a work of which I always feel a certain dread at the thought of encountering it all by myself on a dark night, but again, Biss made it sound considerably less aggressively expressionistic than usual, and a good deal more lyrically attractive.

 Best of all was the way he played his encore, the central Andante cantabile from Mozart’s C-major Sonata, K. 330. Here, released from the obligation imposed by Beethoven to make big loud statements, he caressed the music with unwavering concentration and positively magical quiet lyricism.

 Yet, on this same evening, my more negative impressions returned in both of the Beethoven sonatas, with meaningless gabble once again disfiguring the faster music, and many of the emphatic chords that punctuate the first movement of Opus 2 No. 1 distressingly harsh and metallic in tone. And moreover, in the very next movement of the Schumann after “Vogel als Prophet,” the exuberant “Jagdlied,” the rhythm in every one of the recurring cadential measures was constantly getting ahead of itself.

 Whether Biss may one day prove capable of bringing to such music the considerable beauty of conception and execution he showed intermittently in this program is a question for which I do not presume to offer an answer. But I think it would be very good for him to think about the question. That encore, above all, showed him to be far too good a musician to be satisfied with only intermittent beauties.

Bernard Jacobson

Leave a Comment