Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Let us garlands bring, Op.18
Jonathan Biss (piano)
Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jac van Steen
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 11 October, 2002
Venue: BBC Studio One, Maida Vale, London
Radio 3’s “New Generation Artists” scheme is now well established. One of its positives (there are no negatives) is that the chosen musicians come under the BBC’s aegis for a two-year period. Performances and broadcasts are guaranteed and, no doubt, there is eminently practical career-help to underpin the exposure achieved at relatively young ages. Now into its stride, the initiative is developing a roster of talent. Two of the soloists in this concert are new members.
Of them, Li-Wei made an immediate impact, and I’m bound to think that Jonathan Biss has a huge amount to offer, even if he made the least good impression here. This studio-made concert (for R3 broadcast on the morning of 22 November at 11.30) began impressively with Li-Wei. He is a spontaneous musician who established his authority at the outset, not just with a majestic presentation of the opening statement but through phrasal and tonal poise; this is a concerto with many pitfalls that Li-Wei avoided. He also avoided another pitfall, the Jacqueline du Pré way of playing this work, for although Li-Wei came to this music through her famous recording, he didn’t smother it.
However, as the performance developed, I would have liked more variety of expression and tone from him and some recognition of the work’s darker side. At his best in cantabile passages Li-Wei spun a hypnotic line in the ’Adagio’ but was not as dextrous in the preceding ’Allegro molto’ as might have been expected (in this age of super-virtuosos!). If, for the moment, the internal burden of the music alludes him, he will win many friends with his unpretentious art.
Jonathan Lemalu has been gathering a garland of enthusiastic reviews (pun intended!) and is presumably soon to drop away from the “New Generation” scheme to an enviable list of international engagements. Here, his voice proved too bass for the baritone Finzi wrote for; some words were swallowed and reflexes seemed slow because of the profundity. I also find Lemalu, for all his intrinsic ability to sing and communicate, lacks facility. Throughout Gerald Finzi’s lovely cycle (of Shakespeare), I longed for softer-curve phrases, for a greater sense of the music’s pathos, for something more emotionally equable with the music’s expression and more dovetailed with the instrumental writing. I could have also done without certain syllabic emphases. The likeable Lemalu charms but fails to move. It was left to the BBCSO’s strings to strike nerves, not least in the central song, ’Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’, among the most poignant settings of the English language.
Under the wholly excellent Jac van Steen, Beethoven’s stormy Third Concerto completed the evening. American Jonathan Biss was surely not at his best making his UK debut; he seemed nervous and involuntarily rushed an already swift tempo for the first movement. In a competition I suspect a jury would have questioned his reaction to pressure. However, beneath the tenseness there was a real musical brain at work. There were several times when I thought of Biss as a young Alfred Brendel in his process of analysis and musical savouring, and then returning this complex as a living, breathing edifice. Some soft-focus, Debussyian attentions in the cadenza came as a surprise within the intellectual locus. Biss seems more ’Hammerklavier’ than ’Moonlight’; one suspects his Chopin is formally rendered and his Schumann well organised and, not inappropriately, headstrong; from contemporary American literature he might prefer Carter’s Night Fantasies to Adams’s Phrygian Gates. Biss appears to enjoy the science of music, his playing reflects this and is welcome. He plays Beethoven and Kirchner at the Wigmore Hall on 4 November (lunchtime).