Jonathan Biss

Piano Sonata in E minor, Op.90
Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op.19
Piano Sonata in A, D959

Jonathan Biss (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 10 March, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Jonathan BissIn a particularly well-planned programme for this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert, Jonathan Biss contrasted a compact Beethoven sonata with one of the three giants of Schubert’s final year. The link between the two becomes clearer melodically, for the theme from Beethoven’s second movement could almost be a pure example of his contemporary’s writing.

Jonathan Biss played both sonatas with commendable surety and a keen sense of drama. In the Beethoven this extended to a slight exaggeration of the first movement’s mannerisms, but this worked well as the flashes of virtuosity contrasted with points of repose. The transformation from darkness to light, from first movement to second, was cleverly achieved with the flowing theme. As this subsequently reappeared, Biss was careful to present it in a subtly different light each time, now and then leaning on its approach before speeding up, then playing it straight.

There were many fine things in Biss’s performance of the Schubert, successfully carrying the weight of the Sonata’s structure and emotional pull, if not perhaps consistently under the surface of the first movement. There was, however, the tortured outburst at the core of the Andantino, played with a great variance of attack, pedalling and tempo to give it a manic quality. Biss also succeeded in bringing through the clear anticipations of Mahler contained within this movement, and the petering away into the lower register of what might have been a jaunty barcarolle theme was perfectly judged.

Jonathan BissIf the opening Allegro didn’t give the fullest indication of the size of the structure lying ahead, it did set out a clean, transparent sound while retaining much expressive insight – a powerful right-hand against the left’s tolling chords particularly notable, as was a sudden dimming of the lights for the softer second theme.

After a wonderfully ‘throw-away’ scherzo, both playfully flighted and articulate, Biss emphasised the lyricism of the finale, paying close attention to harmonic nuances and varying the tempo accordingly. Here there was a genuine sense of a summit being scaled.

Offering complete contrast between the sonatas was Schoenberg’s pin-pricks of intensity, the Six Little Pieces generating a rare hush through the hall. Schoenberg saves his keenest invention until last; the control shown by Biss in evoking muffled bell-strokes was exquisite.

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