United Kingdom Berg, Schoenberg, Schumann and Beethoven: Jonathan Biss (piano), Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 31.3.2015 (AS)
Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1
Schoenberg: Six Little Pieces, Op. 19
Schumann: Waldszenen, Op. 82
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 25 in G, Op. 79
Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, ‘Appassionata’
There were quite a few empty seats in the hall for this enterprising recital, and I hope this was not because the names of Berg and Schoenberg were in the programme list. Berg’s solitary piano sonata, composed in one 13-minute-long movement, is an early work, but not as early as the opus number may suggest, for it was written in 1908, when the composer was aged 23 and had already written songs and other pieces that stretched conventional tonality. When played with sensitivity, as it was by Jonathan Biss, the sonata emerges as a composition of considerable expressive content, with arresting contrasts of strength and delicate beauty. Quite rightly, I feel, Biss saw the piece’s voyage into the first stages of atonality as an extension of late Romanticism, rather than an attempt to throw away the past.
In Schoenberg’s Opus 19, written three years later, all links to tonality have been abandoned, but the composer had yet to develop a means of harnessing atonality through the invention of his 12-note compositional technique. Some performers look back at this intermediate phase in the composer’s output through the knowledge of his later, more strictly constructed serial works, and impose a literal style of interpretation on them. But the Opus 19 pieces have a good deal of expressive potential if the performer is willing to allow this quality to flower naturally. Such was the case in Jonathan Biss’s reading. Each piece had its own clearly defined character – for instance, elegance and warmth in No. 1 (‘Light, delicate’); sonorous depth in the grave chords of No. 3 (‘Very slow’); and a dainty, rather whimsical element in No. 4 (‘Brisk, but light’).
Apart from ‘Vogels als Prophet’, the well-known seventh scene in Schumann’s Waldszenen, this last of the composer’s major cycles is less favoured in performances than some of the others. What was particularly appealing about Jonathan Biss’s performance was its straightforwardness. This is not to say it was plain – in fact it was full of imagination and flair – but there were no interpretative foibles inserted between Schumann’s original inspiration and the realisation of the printed notes in sound. That sound was itself most satisfying, since Biss’s technique is brilliant and there is both beauty and clarity of execution in his playing.
After the interval we firstly heard an appealing performance of Beethoven’s brief Sonata No. 25, with a joyous and rhythmically vibrant first movement, a charmingly pointed Andante, and a finale that bubbled with good humour. And then it was a Beethoven sonata of a far different character, the Appassionata. Here again, Biss impressed with his direct, concentrated and communicative playing. His was a passionate performance, quite free in expression yet always respectful to the varying moods of this great work, and satisfying in its observance of its structure.
This was a most satisfying recital. There was one encore, Schumann’s Arabeske, played quite briskly, but with care and affection.