Departure and Discovery from Jonathan Biss

United StatesUnited States Bach, Kurtág, Britten, Beethoven: Brentano Quartet, Jonathan Biss (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 16.2.2017. (BJ)

Bach – from Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV1080: Contrapuncti I, III, V, & X
Kurtág – from Játékok, Volume VII: “Un brin de bruyère à Witold (in memoriam Witold Lutosławski”; “ . . . and once again: Shadow-play”; “Hommage à Farkas Ferenc 90”; “Fugitive thoughts about the Alberti bass”; “All’ongherese”; “Geburtstagsgrüße für Nuria [ . . . etwas verspätet . . . ]”
Britten – String Quartet No.3 Op.94
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in C minor Op.111

Since I first heard Jonathan Biss ten years ago, repeated encounters with his playing have provided what might be called a Jekyll-and-Hyde experience. There seem to be two quite different Jonathan Bisses.

It has been heartening on recent occasions to find his Dr Jekyll persona strongly in the ascendant – notably in a song recital with Mark Padmore – and in some performances of Haydn, Schubert, and Dvořák chamber works that revealed an interpreter with impressive gifts of poetry as well as firmly-based technical skills. Such successes have had me hoping that Biss was growing out of his baleful Mr Hyde propensity for unstable rushing in bravura passages, for unpleasantly harsh tone in fortissimo, and for a failure to make his tone sing at any dynamic level.

The good doctor and the bad mister, however, were both in evidence on this occasion. A group of pieces from György Kurtág’s ongoing piano cycle Játékok received performances perceptive and atmospheric enough to camouflage the relatively insubstantial nature of that surely overrated composer’s work. But while Beethoven’s last and to my mind greatest piano sonata is a tough nut for any performer to crack, Biss reverted in it to his old vices of harshness in slow loud passages and sheer unsteady gabble in the fast music. He also failed to evoke the mystical beauty of the sonata’s ending, which, in the eloquent words of a British critic several decades ago, “sets us down gently on the edge of eternity,” but which under Biss’s hands merely stopped.

Perhaps his mind was distracted by the responsibility of collaborating with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society in curating a three-concert series dedicated to exploring late style in the music of various composers. A pendant to the series title, “Departure and Discovery,” specified “New Directions at the Apex of Creativity,” and this first program was preceded by a discussion featuring several heavy hitters in the fields of musicology, criticism, and philosophy.

I felt that in all this there was more than a whiff of a pretentiousness quite different from the artistic directness usually evident in PCMS’s presentations, and I also found the deployment of the musicians on stage puzzling. The members of the excellent Brentano Quartet, which had opened the program with compelling performances of four Contrapuncti from Bach’s “Art of Fugue,” were brought on again to sit in front of the piano and listen solemnly to Biss playing Kurtág – but instead of returning the compliment by staying to listen to the group’s admirably well-focused and expressive performance of Britten’s Third Quartet, Biss, distractingly and also somewhat portentously, walked offstage while the first notes of the quartet were sounding.

“Bizarre, bizarre,” as the Louis Jouvet character remarked in Marcel Carné’s great film comedy Drôle de drame. I am left hoping that the two remaining programs in the series, on 6 and 13 March, may make a more positive impression. The latter, in which Biss again joins forces with Mark Padmore, for Schubert’s Schwanengesang, certainly promises well.

Bernard Jacobson

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