Jonathan Biss at Wigmore Hall – Beethoven

Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.10/1
Bagatelles, Op.126
Piano Sonata in E, Op.109

Jonathan Biss (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 4 October, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Jonathan Biss. Photograph: J KatzThis well-chosen BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert revealed Beethoven’s exploring new approaches to form, Jonathan Biss conveying well theses radical changes to the ‘piano sonata’ as well as the newly invented ‘bagatelle’.

In his first four published piano sonatas, Beethoven remained within the traditional four-movement guideline, but by the time he had reached the first of the Opus 10 threesome he was getting itchy feet. Jonathan Biss communicated something of this restlessness in an occasionally brusque first movement, its initial clarity giving way to clipped melodic phrases in the development, making it harder to follow the rhythmic profile. That said, this was an extremely committed and expressive performance, paying close attention to dynamic markings and taking advantage of opportunities for rubato, particularly in the Adagio, which found a wonderful stillness before increasingly florid ornamentation imposed itself.

Jonathan BissThe last of the composer’s three groups of Bagatelles make up an extraordinary, self-contained work, clearly written as a set. Here the elements of freeform fantasy were brought to the fore, especially in the reckless outbursts that bookended the final piece, totally at odds with the serene reverie that Biss found in the middle. Elsewhere the edgy fourth piece settled in the coda, perhaps unintentionally evoking a folk procession with its distinctive melody and drone, while the harmonic sleights of hand in the quick second piece were a delight.

Perhaps inevitably the tone was more serious for the first of the celebrated triptych of late sonatas, with Biss taking a stern view of the second movement Prestissimo and a relatively straight-faced one of the first movement, using unusual but effective voicing in the right-hand to bring out the ascent to its recapitulation. As with each of these three works the structural weight leans heavily towards the finale. Initially the Theme was spelt out in an attractive cantabile, passing through a second Variation that introduced it to the world of Baroque invention, with extra detail in the right-hand. Biss allowed the music to lose control rather as the vortex of trills was reached, creating a real tension that was not fully resolved in the restatement of the Theme, but which found an appropriate response in the half-minute of silence that followed its conclusion.

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