Jonathan Biss continues his Beethoven sonata cycle at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Jonathan Biss (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 28.2.2020. (CC)

Jonathan Biss (c) IMG Artists

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.6 in F, Op.10/2; Piano Sonata No.10 in G, Op.14/2; Piano Sonata No.18 in E flat, Op.31/3; Piano Sonata No.24 in F sharp, Op.78; Piano Sonata No.30 in E, Op.109

Due to illness, Jonathan Biss postponed his ‘Hammerklavier’ until 20 April; ticket holders who had pre-booked were advised by post. This concert is the last before the release of the box set of Biss’s cycle on Orchid Classics on 20 March, a beautifully packaged affair. The playing there, too, is superb, consistently fresh and enlightening; it represents one of the finest products of Beethoven 250.

The course of Biss’s Wigmore Hall cycle has so far been more varied, and this particular one continued the trend, pitting moments of beauty and pure attunement to Beethoven’s thought processes against moments when the music threatened to fragment. A case in point is the F major Sonata from Op.10, its opening freshness not quite prolonged in the way of Biss’s recording, perhaps due to a recurrent metrical unsteadiness in live performance. Here at the Wigmore, Beethoven’s tricky writing in the first movement could sound scrambled; and while the return to the opening Allegretto of the second movement was exquisitely managed, the finale, taken at a proper Presto, disintegrated at one point, its close approximate (Biss’s recording tells us his true intentions, and delightful they are).

Cleanliness was the watchword of Biss’s Op.14/2, a sonata beloved of many an amateur pianist. Heard in these hands, though, the piece reveals itself as the gem it truly is. The left-hand octave leaps were supremely articulated – a small detail, perhaps, but indicative of the care lavished here. A lovely minor key darkening took the performance to even deeper realms. The central movement was taken at a proper Andante, and embodied all the best of Biss’s playing at its finest: a consistency of interpretation and a performance that can glow. The wit of the finale did not escape Biss, either, the fleeting semiquaver scale snippets thrown about like a ball in a game. The Sonata Op.14/2 was far more than the interlude it appeared on paper, therefore, between Op.10/2 and the E flat Sonata, Op.31/3.

One wonders if the initial rationale was to pit Op.31/3 against the Op.106, as Op.31/3 is the last sonata to contain four movements until the ‘Hammerklavier’. It also offers both Scherzo (albeit in 2/4 and in sonata form) and Menuetto instead of a traditional slow movement. Biss honoured the harmonically enigmatic opening beautifully; the occasional stumble and scrabble did detract from the excellence of Biss’s interpretation (find his recording to hear him at his absolute, towering best). Again, as if to gain balance, Biss’s left-hand staccato at the opening of the Scherzo was exemplary, exciting, each note perfectly formed. The Menuetto’s marking includes the word ‘grazioso’, and so it was here, a gentle contrast to the Presto of the finale. The marking of this finale is actually ‘Presto con fuoco’. Biss played down the fiery element, finding instead Beethovenian skittish play.

The gentle F sharp major Sonata, Op.78 could hardly be more contrastive to the intended Op.106.  It is an absolute gem of a work, almost Schubertian in its opening Adagio cantabile. The later gentle chordal ascents seem born of the composer of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony rather than that of the Fifth or Seventh Symphonies. Why the Wigmore Hall left the lights up for this most intimate of beginnings is a puzzle. But Biss’s first movement was a joy; the finale, an Allegro vivace, was less successful, on the harsh side, the clear sense of play (catch me if you can) rather missing; again, it is better in the recorded version.

Moving to late Beethoven now, and the E major Sonata, Op.109. Here was Biss mainly at his finest, with the occasional slip in the finale, followed by a fall-out (he rushed the next passage) and a short memory lapse. Nevertheless, Biss shows a real affinity for late Beethoven, and the pacing, the textures and the overall grasp of structure all came together to provide, overall, a glorious experience, all underpinned by a fine awareness of pedal technique. The tricky second movement had internal drive as well as a great awareness of Beethoven’s inner-voice part writing. And how magical was the right-hand octave leap in the opening bars of the long finale, properly, as Beethoven asked for, ‘Gesangvoll’. The staccato variation was superbly managed, Biss’s touch perfectly on point. But there was much more than incidental detail here. In his own comments on the sonata, Biss states that the processes the theme here undergoes ‘is more like psychoanalysis’, and at his best, Biss has the ability to project just that level of depth. This now became a journey of the soul that the audience had no choice but to become involved in, the final return of the theme a moment of great depth. It was followed by what can only be described as a bronchial silence.

Colin Clarke

For an interview with Jonathan Biss click here.

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