Jonathan Biss at Wigmore Hall [Mozart, Schoenberg, Schubert & Chopin]

Piano Sonata in C minor, K457
Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op.19
Piano Sonata in C D840 (Reliquie)
Barcarolle, Op.60; 3 Mazurkas, Op.59; Nocturne in D flat, Op.27/2; Ballade in F minor, Op.52

Jonathan Biss (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 2 April, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Jonathan BissJonathan Biss is a young American pianist who has a recording contract with EMI. As his website shows he has a very surreal sense of humour, which may not go down very well in the ultra-conservative world of classical music: the Wigmore Hall was only half-full.

He opened with one of Mozart’s finest sonatas. The tone glowed in the first subject and there were numerous slight tempo variations, if little true rubato. The phrasing became rather precious between more masculine outbursts. In the slow movement there was the same singing tone and tempo variation and the finale enjoyed plenty of dynamic variation. Schoenberg’s epigrammatic Pieces received very romantic performances. Once again the tone sang and the variations on the short rhythmic pattern of the second Piece that are found in the remainder of the work, were beautifully integrated into the whole. This was Schoenberg par excellence.

Unfortunately from this point the recital went downhill. The (unfinished, two-movement) ‘Reliquie’ lacked the first-movement repeat and there was no sense of threat or danger in the phrasing. At the massive climax of the development the playing was under-powered. Biss’s use of the sustaining pedal was far too even, the glowing tone began to pall and there was a suggestion that the soft fingers and wrist of the right-hand didn’t marry with the rather more solid left: in the first climax of the slow movement the left-hand was louder than the right. The phrasing in both movements didn’t sound natural or in any way distinctive.

Worse was to come in the Chopin. The Barcarolle started rather squarely, there was no rise and fall to the first subject and the contrasting central section was far too loud. Indeed Biss was consistently too loud throughout this group. Rhythmically the Mazurkas were dead and the sustaining pedal was used too freely, while the Nocturne, until the final page, was devoid of serenity and flow; the return of the first section completely lacked magic.

The Fourth Ballade is a masterwork and Biss failed to encompass its numerous mood changes. Here the rather unconvincing pushes and pulls in the tempo were a poor substitute for rubato. In the big climax before the beautiful reverie prior to the fiendishly difficult coda, the sound was just a big over-pedaled wash of sound. And in the coda itself there was a sudden break in the playing and a two-bar memory lapse.

As an encore we had a beautifully limpid account of the slow movement of Mozart’s C major Sonata (K545). This, with the Schoenberg, contained by some distance the finest playing of the evening.

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