Music Review: JONATHAN BISS (Recital at Soraya)

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by Tony Frankel on October 16, 2019

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


What a splendid way to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth year (the Sagittarian was actually born December 17, 1770): The great pianist Jonathan Biss played two separate programs of sonatas this week at The Soraya. I caught the latter, and it was all I could do to keep my jaw from dropping. On the bill were select piano sonatas from all of the German Maestro’s three periods. The occasion, aside from Ludwig’s quartermillennial (also called “semiquincentennial” or “sestercentennial” depending on the source) is the ninth and final volume (due out November 1) of Biss’s set of the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. At 39, he has devoted a lifetime’s study to this music, and his approach tonight, October 16, was typically thoughtful.

Biss is that rare concert pianist so intense that his performances shouldn’t just be confined to a standard recital hall, yet here we were on stage at The Soraya set up as an intimate gathering, in awesomely comfortable, brand new, wider seats with arm rests and back support (purchased at significant cost to The Soraya, a few little birdies told me). What a thrill to be able to sense Biss’s intimacy and his relaxed but penetrative concentration. He consistently engaged with music that’s greater than any one performer, combining a joyous, lucid virtuosity with a profound respect for his art.

Frankly, Biss looked like an accountant who has stayed up all night working on your taxes. Tall and thin, the bespectacled Indiana native with an open-neck collared shirt and dark suit had a thick five-o’clock shadow.

His playing was extraordinary to observe: his wrists are even with the keyboard, and his amazingly long fingers weren’t as curved as many players I’ve seen; each finger lifted up and down almost as if the were from audio-animatronic hands, like Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland (although the fingers curve more when executing dyad intervals). Sometimes, the hands would bounce up and down with such rapidity that it appeared as the flickering of a silent movie (as in the “Presto” of No. 6 in F major, Op. 10 No. 2, the opening sonata, and the “Allegro con brio” in No. 3 in C major, Op. 2, No. 3 in the second act).

Lemme just get the bad news out of the way — not his, mine. Originally on the repertoire but cancelled was the mightiest monster mother of all piano sonatas, the towering No. 29 Op. 106, a fistful of notes that surely must be experienced live. Completed in 1818, this Great Sonata — nicknamed the Hammerklavier (German for a then incipient musical instrument that the French called a fortepiano) — was infrequently performed until the 20th century, perhaps because the dissonant harmonies and angular rhythms finally made sense in the age of Stravinsky and World War I (or perhaps because no one could figure out how to play it until then!). Just ONE movement takes longer than the entire Sonata No. 10 in G major, Op. 14, No. 2 (which Biss played for us with a soaring “Allegro”). I suspect that Mr. Biss was probably skittish that he wouldn’t be able to give a great performance given his demanding selection of eight Beethoven sonatas played yesterday and today prior to the scheduled Op. 29, which was replaced in the second half by No. 9 in E major, Op. 14, No. 1 and the aforementioned No. 3 in C major. Ah, well. Next time.

This isn’t to say that the five sonatas we did hear were slouches. Anything but. Just prior to intermission, we received the third and last of Beethoven’s Op. 31 series — No. 18 in E-flat major, No. 3 The Hunt (also on the Volume 9 CD). It was impressive throughout: the “Allegro” was awash with sincere sensitivity; the “Scherzo” (his most remarkable playing of the night) was crisp, articulate, nuanced and lightning-quick; the “Menuetto” had the Haydn-esque base, but Biss actually brought out and elucidated Beethoven’s then-nascent cutting edge ideas; and in the “Presto” he used a flexible wrist technique that I’m guessing helped to maintain melody during cross hand work. I was so riveted when his right hand played melody and the left pranced skippingly in a staccato accompaniment that I actually leaned forward as if to hear it better.

During the final piece, No. 9, Biss remained sure, playful, professional, and relaxed. He was not trying to impress here, he was simply interpreting. In doing so, he mined out new colors and hues from these oft-heard and-recorded sonatas (32 in all).

Every fugue, counterpoint, upper mordent and double trill was witnessed by a most civilized crowd — no phones going off (although a few dropped), no candy wrappers, and polite applause after the sonata not each movement. Sitting on stage with the massive theater lit gently behind Mr. Biss and his Steinway, this felt like a salon, especially evident in soft and tender passages. Piano recitalists come and go, but believe me, Biss — along with Trifonov, Abduraimov, and Kissen — makes a Major Statement about the art of piano playing. After the concert, patrons were invited backstage to the loading dock for complimentary wine, hors d’oeuvres, and conversation with Mr. Biss himself, who was being most congenial and approachable.

I would even let him do my taxes.

photos by Luis Luque

Jonathan Biss, Pianist
Beethoven Piano Sonatas (selections)
The Soraya (The Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts)
CSUN (California State University, Northridge); 18111 Nordhoff Street in Northridge
played October  15 & 16, 2019
for future tickets, call 818.677.3000 or visit The Soraya
for more tour dates and cities, visit Jonathan Biss

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