Jonathan Biss at Queen Elizabeth Hall – Beethoven, Janáček & Chopin

Piano Sonata No.5 in C minor, Op.10/1
In the Mists
Nocturne in E, Op.62/2; Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61
Piano Sonata 1.X.1905, From the Street
Piano Sonata No.26 in E flat, Op.81a (Les adieux)

Jonathan Biss (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 17 January, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Jonathan Biss. Photograph: J KatzAlong with the first release in his projected Beethoven cycle (on Onyx), the American pianist Jonathan Biss has also written a Kindle e-book about his obsession with the sonatas, which goes into some detail about his hero-worshipping of Schnabel. I doubt that Schnabel ever tore into Opus 10/Number 1 with such physical fury as Biss did here, to the extent that the detail of the opening melted in the white-hot energy of his playing. It set a tone of compulsive intensity that became the elephant in the room, and made you fret on his behalf that he needed a gulp or two of air – Beethoven, especially in C minor mode, needs little encouragement to be hectoring. Biss revealed that vital, intuitive spark in a poetic performance of the slow movement, with a perfectly judged return to earth at the end that rightly raised but didn’t realise possibilities of transcendence.

There’s an element of wry but self-assured, Woody Allen-type self-examination to Biss’s playing that can seem almost nerdy, and it served the neurotic, emphatic obsessiveness of Janacek’s In the Mists a bit too well, as though he was pushing himself too hard to be as raw as the music. Biss was certainly up for its irrepressible and still startling originality, but, some ear-bashing fortissimos aside, his anxious urbanity didn’t have enough focus. That then left you a bit puzzled as to how he could be so spot-on in Janacek’s Sonata. Again, the sinewy strength of his playing eased up just enough for a compelling rather than compulsive performance of this searing tribute to a young Czech protester, in which you sensed that Biss left certain aspects of Biss behind, a process that allowed him to merge with the music. The Sonata’s narrative had an almost operatic intensity – tragic, stunningly immediate, with a far-reaching range of colour and mercurial direction of mood.

This openness fed into the two Chopin pieces, a veiled Nocturne that caught precisely the tensile strength of its decorative impermanence and a layered, flowing performance of the wonderful Polonaise-Fantaisie, again with a hot line to the music’s shape-shifting transformations and displaying a finely nuanced, natural use of rubato. Possibly he milked the slow middle section of Beethoven’s ‘Les adieux’ too emphatically, but otherwise Biss’s performance was impressively spirited, not least the finale and some deliriously fast speeds.

There’s no doubting Biss’s intelligence and serious sense of purpose, but you felt sometimes that his personality didn’t mesh clearly with the music. As with his hero Schnabel, a few fluffs didn’t matter, but with Biss they more likely arose from a pretty febrile tension. He’s a player, though, who really makes you sit up and listen.

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