More enthusiastically received Beethoven Piano Sonatas from Jonathan Biss at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Complete Piano Sonatas II: Jonathan Biss (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 19.12.2019. (CC)

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in E flat, Op.7 (1797); Piano Sonata in D minor, Op.31/2, ‘The Tempest’ (1802); Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.10/1 (1795-7); Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.57, ‘Appassionata’ (1804-5)

And so, to the second instalment in Jonathan Biss’s Wigmore Beethoven Sonata cycle part of their Beethoven 250 celebrations. The hall was full but certainly not packed to the rafters like the first instalment (as is the nature of these things); Biss’s accounts were enthusiastically received.

In the first recital of this cycle  there was a tendency towards a certain splashiness; the major issue was just when one started to be immersed into Biss’s conception (and there is no doubt that he lives and breathes this music – it is very much a conception worth being immersed in) some technical or memory stumble would derail the listening process. To an extent that was true here, too, but less pronouncedly. One should, however, refer to Biss’s Onyx recordings for the full story.

The Op.7 Sonata of 1797 is a large-scale piece, cast over four movements. The assertive opening sets out its stall: loud, pulsing, ambitious. Biss found the dynamism here, the bass accents against the right-hand semiquavers perfectly placed and full of import; but there were once more some fragile moments, where the backbone of confidence was shaken. The finest movement was the Largo, con gran espressione, chords perfectly balanced, melodies singing right to the cramped seats right at the very back of the hall in the corner (the critics’ seats, in other words, underneath the acoustic trap); the finale, too, was eased into magically.

Moving into the middle period of Beethoven’s output, if one accepts the traditional segmentation, the so-called ‘Tempest’ Sonata was given a highly intelligent reading, the allegro of the first movement scampering and low-pedal, the recitatives very much pedalled, inner voiced pulsating breathlessly. The slow movement highlighted one of Biss’s core traits, one that should be uniform to all pianists and conductors: he counts rests (not all do, by any means). In so doing the silences achieve maximal tension, the re-entry of sound then has maximal impact. The speed felt quicker than his recorded cycle; that for the finale felt quicker too, an allegro rather than the prescribed Allegretto, highlighting the underlying excitement in the score.

The early Op.10/1 Sonata’s first movement is marked Molto allegro e con brio; this speed tended towards the Presto, but how even was Biss’s left-hand. Throughout this sonata, one felt Beethoven’s harmonic freshness viscerally, the silences again magnificently sustained in the Adagio molto. The finale, post-Haydn in its playfulness, contained some smudging but remained true to the spirit.

Finally, the ‘Appassionata,’ one of the great pinnacles of the cycle. Biss has recorded it both for EMI (coupled with the Op.77 Fantasia and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze) and within his complete cycle, the latter with the finer recording quality. Both are fine accounts, deeply considered yet exciting. This Wigmore ‘Appassionata’ was the finest of the evening in many ways, the first movement characterised by its contrasts, octaves clean, rest again perfectly measured, repeated notes pulsating with energy, cross-hand work supremely even. Biss takes the slow movement at a proper Andante (across all of the performances), enabling him to shape the span well. The semiquaver-drenched finale was headlong, more so than his recordings, and the immediate question was, where is the space for the coda’s Presto? There was some blurring, too, plus some fudging. And as it was, the coda, when it came, did not feel that much of a shift, exciting though it was.

The next recital in this series is on Sunday 26 January: the ‘Pastoral,’ plus Opp. 49/2, 2/3, 90 and 101, offering Biss’s first foray of the cycle this time round into the late Sonatas.

Colin Clarke

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