Jonathan Biss begins his odyssey through the Beethoven sonatas at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Piano Sonatas I: Jonathan Biss (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 29.9.2019. (CC)

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op.2/1 (1793-5); Piano Sonata in E, Op.14/1 (1798); Piano Sonata in E flat, Op.27/1, ‘quasi una fantasia’ (1801); Piano Sonata in A flat, Op.26 (1800-1); Piano Sonata in C, Op.53, ‘Waldstein’ (1803-4)

Preceded the day before by a fascinating Q&A session (and, indeed, followed by another Q&A after the concert itself), Jonathan Biss’s London cycle of Beethoven Sonatas launched with ‘Genesis’: the F minor Sonata, Op.2/1 (he will close the cycle with Op.111 next June). This marks a year of Beethoven immersion for Biss, who is on the cusp of completing his recorded survey of the Sonatas: nine volumes, the last to be released in November 2019, recorded over nine years. Having heard the complete recorded cycle, it is fair to say it will be one of the most significant of recent years. Some might also recall an EMI disc of four Beethoven Sonatas that Biss recorded over a decade previously: Nos. 8, 15, 27 and 30. He will now perform an entire season focused around Beethoven, with the complete cycle also in Berkeley and multi-concert series in Washington, Philadelphia and Seattle, as well as recitals in Rome, Budapest, New York and Sydney.

Biss’s web-based ‘Coursera’ series on the Beethoven sonatas (available free to anyone with an internet connection) has been a tremendous success. He is an enthusiastic, passionate and knowledgeable communicator, whether in lecture or in question and answer scenarios; and on a one-to-one level, too, he is open and sincere. His love for Beethoven extends to a fascinating Kindle ebook, Beethoven’s Shadow, revelatory and inspiring, and including tributes to his teacher, Leon Fleischer, as well as discussions on the historical greats such as, for example, Schnabel. On top of all that, Biss has initiated Beethoven/5, a series of commissions of five piano concertos as companion pieces to the Beethoven concertos. The composers are Timo Andres (The Blind Banister, 2015) Salvatore Sciarrino (Il sogno di Stradella, 2017), Sally Beamish (City Stanzas, 2017), Caroline Shaw (Watermark, 2019) and Brett Dean (Gneixendorfer Musik – Ein Winterreise, to be premiered on February 13, 2020 with the Swedish RSO under David Afkham).

The Wigmore Hall was packed and expectant, sold out and then some. The Wigmore Hall has a huge history and must be daunting: could this, plus the pressure of embarking on an undertaking vital to the Wigmore’s ‘Beethoven 250’ celebrations, have accounted for the discrepancy between the halves of the concert?  The works heard this evening spanned the decade 1793-1803/4, and the recital was beautifully programmed. But despite the frequent excellence of the F minor Sonata, there was a feeling of unsettled playing, particularly in what sounded like a memory slip right near the end of a ferociously paced Prestissimo. But set against that was the intelligent voice-leading of the first movement (exposition repeat observed), the singing tone of the Adagio (with its perfectly judged final chords) and a magical Trio in the third movement. The recorded performance on Onyx Classics, though, is in another league, confident throughout and all-commanding in its grasp of Beethoven’s voice and processes.

Every aspiring pianist, surely, has wrestled with Op.14/1 thanks to the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. As Biss said in one of his Q&As, Beethoven transcribed this sonata for string quartet, and when you play it on piano, it indeed looks like it should be for string quartet. It’s only when you hear it on string quartet you realise it could only be really on piano. Biss paced the second subject of the first movement beautifully. Those octave-plus slurs in the second movement were the treat in this sonata (think about the challenge: such a plunge, and to create legato on what is a percussion instrument …). The finale is marked Allegro comodo (variously translated as comfortable/moderate) but this felt way faster, and none too comfortable. True, how beautifully the syncopated crotchets worked against the left-hand descending triplets, but overall this felt just too hard-pressed.

The final sonata before the interval was the first of the Op.27 set, marked ‘quasi una fantasia’. Finding a nice tempo for the first movement, with lovely left-hand staccato, Biss gave a good account of the first movement without erasing memories of Brendel (who seems supreme in this sonata whichever recording of his one lights on). More contrasts and contradictions followed, though: the Adagio con espressione was the clear highlight of the first half, perfectly timed; the finale, though, was splashy and even seemed to stumble again at one point.

The second half was somewhat different; one felt far more often that one could relax and hand over to the hands of a master. Biss’s way with the first movement variations of the Op.26 Sonata was relaxed to the extent of verging on the Schubertian. Yet it worked, the individuality of the various variations honoured and yet held with in an overall arch; intriguingly, some moments seemed remarkably prophetic of the transcendental sets of the late sonatas. Perhaps the Allegro molto Scherzo was slightly ambitious and there were some awkward moments in the finale, but the Marcia funèbre had real depth.

Better still was the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, fast, brilliantly even, with a fabulously judged return to the opening at the recapitulation of the first movement. The speed was breakneck, but Biss pulled it off. That ‘Introduzione’ to the Rondo was beautifully well sustained; the finale, daringly pedalled (it worked beautifully), showed Biss’s full grasp of Beethoven’s soundworld.

Biss’s recorded versions, even of the sonatas in the second half of the concert, are more satisfying experiences and perhaps represent Biss at his very best; but I for one am ready to be proved wrong on that in the instalments to follow. Searching intellects of this kind, motivated by such genuine passion, are hard to find.

Biss returns to the Wigmore in December with the next of his seven programmes, one that includes both ‘Tempest’ and ‘Appassionata’ sonatas; then in January (which for the first time takes us into the late territory, closing with Op.101), February (which includes the ‘Hammerklavier’), April, May and June 2020.

Colin Clarke

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