In 2011, Jonathan Biss embarked on a nine-year, nine-disc project to record the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Considered the cornerstone of the pianist’s repertoire, the cycle comprises thirty-two sonatas in a range of emotional expressions. Asked why, Jonathan responded: "Because he takes my breath away. Because he does so frequently, and in a way no other musical or life experience can replicate. Because he can do so through so many different heightened emotional states: despair in the slow movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata; warm-bloodedness in the second movement of the Sonata Op. 90; rage in the Appassionata Sonata; sheer transcendence in the G Major Piano Concerto and most everything else he wrote. Because I can see no better way of losing myself than in these wonders. Because I have to."
Jonathan announced his intention for Beethoven's piano music to become a central tenant in his life when he wrote Beethoven’s Shadow, which was published on Beethoven’s birthday, 16th December 2011. He has subsequently recorded eight of the nine volumes of his Beethoven Sonata cycle; initiated Exploring Beethoven's Piano Sonatas, Coursera's online course that has reached more than 150,000 subscribers; and launched Beethoven/5, a project that involved commissioning piano concertos as companion works for each of Beethoven's five piano concertos.
Starting in September 2019, in the lead-up to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth in December 2020, Jonathan will perform all Beethoven's piano sonatas at the Wigmore Hall and celebrate the release of the last CD of his 9 volumes set. Each of his seven Wigmore Hall concerts will be preceded by a Coursera meet-up and followed by postconcert talks with speakers including Brett Dean and Sally Beamish, two of the five composers he commissioned for Beethoven/5, the Belcea Quartet, Jan Swafford and Mitsuko Uchida. John Gilhooly, Artistic Director of the Wigmore Hall, adds: "I was very pleased to invite Jonathan Biss to take all 32 of the Piano Sonatas as part of our celebratory Beethoven season in 19/20. Jonathan’s erudite talks and writings will add a huge amount to our season-long focus on the great composer, and of course Jonathan becomes an even finer Beethoven interpreter with every passing year in his career."
In 2020 Jonathan's Beethoven/5 project, launched in association with the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, will reach its conclusion with Brett Dean's Piano Concerto Gneixendorfer musik - Eine Winterreise, commissioned as a companion piece to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5. The first of the commissions, Timo Andres's The Blind Bannister (subsequently a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize), was composed to be performed alongside Piano Concerto No. 2 and premièred by Jonathan and the St Paul Chamber Orchestra in November 2015. The Blind Bannister was followed by Sally Beamish's City Stanzas, which received its première with Beethoven's first Piano Concerto in St Paul in January 2017; Salvatore Sciarrino's Piano Concerto, heard for the first time in September 2017 with Piano Concerto No. 4; and Watermark, Caroline Shaw's response to Piano Concerto No. 3 and first performed in January 2019.
Exploring Beethoven's Piano Sonatas is a collaboration between Jonathan and the Curtis Institute of Music - where he both studied and teaches – and Coursera. The first instalments of the free, online course went live in September 2013 with an initial enrolment of 30,000: seven times the total number of students who have attended Curtis since the school opened its doors in October 1924. It subsequently relaunched in a format enabling subscribers to watch the video lessons at their own pace and has now reached more than 150,000 learners in 185 countries. Jonathan continues to add to Exploring Beethoven's Piano Sonatas with new lectures taking a deeper look into specific sonatas.
Beethoven has been Jonathan's life-long companion but it was not until 2011 and the publication of Beethoven’s Shadow that the scope of his journey became really apparent. The first Kindle eBook to be written by a classical musician, Beethoven’s Shadow is a remarkable piece of writing which explores the rationale behind the recording of the sonatas and gives an unprecedented insight into the far reaching intelligence of an artist known for his considered approach and prodigious technique.