Pianist Biss Covers Wide Range of Western Canon
For one night, the likes of Webern ruled over the ever-popular Mozart. Pianist Jonathan Biss took the stage to offer his talents to the audience last Thursday as a part of the Artist Recital Series.
Biss’s program on Tuesday night consisted of works by Beethoven, Webern, Mozart and Schumann, a seemingly random amalgamation of different styles.
“It’s eclectic in terms of time, but I feel it all belongs to the same tradition. When you put Webern and Mozart side by side, for example, you notice similarities: Mozart sounds remarkably chromatic, and Webern sounds quite expressive,” Biss said.
Biss opened with Beethoven’s well-known Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, nicknamed the “Pathétique,” a work that too often fails to make an impression in performance in spite of, or perhaps because of, its great popularity. The main Allegro sounded too lightweight and underpowered — the right hand was not projected powerfully enough, especially in the development. Nevertheless, everything was well-shaped musically and Biss had the measure of the music.
To my surprise, Webern’s Variations received what was easily the most impressive performance on the first half of the program. This work is masterfully constructed, but highly abstract; it demands a truly great performance. Biss shaped the opening phrases lovingly, while the piece’s forte outbursts were projected with fierce, brutal intensity. It was a performance of extremes, exactly what was needed to make the music come alive.
“I put the Webern between the Beethoven and Mozart because I feel that those two composers, though close chronologically, are the two most different in history,” Biss said. “Beethoven writes in concepts, while Mozart writes about humanity. Webern is about nostalgia for both. Great art is all about conversation with itself; I like to program pieces that reveal things about each other.”
Mozart’s Sonata in F Major, KV 533, by contrast, failed to make much of an impression in Biss’s hands, at least in the outer movements. The first movement, in particular, was speedy and prosaic, so much so that I kept realizing I wasn’t paying attention. The slow movement, on the other hand, was as perfect a piece of Mozart playing as I’ve ever heard. Biss was not afraid to treat the piece romantically; he obviously relished its richly chromatic harmonies.
After intermission, a transformation seemed to have taken place: gone was the technically adroit, occasionally expressive, but basically uneven artist of the first half, and here was a master. The second half was devoted entirely to Schumann’s magnificent Kreisleriana, one of the most powerful expressions of this composer’s split personality.
“Split” was certainly the operative word in Biss’s performance; the lyrical sections were hypnotic in their dreamy romanticism, while the agitated ones chugged along like express trains.
Biss’s passion for music is hardly surprising, given his background: his grandmother, cellist Raya Garbousova, inspired Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto, and both his parents, Miriam Fried and Paul Biss, are well-known violinists.
“I don’t think music is genetic; it’s like a language: if you don’t hear it from the time you’re very young, you’ll never be comfortable with it,” Biss said.
Biss studied with Evelyne Brancart at Indiana University, and then with Leon Fleisher at the Curtis Institute of Music.
He described Curtis as a “fishbowl”; with approximately 160 students, the tiny institution primarily focuses on music to the exclusion of everything else.
“It’s a dangerous educational system,” Biss said. “I spent all my college years focusing on music alone, so now I feel it’s my responsibility to educate myself.”
Yet the music making was exceptional: “Once you got past the competitive atmosphere, you could play with some really inspiring partners. I think an institution like Oberlin offers the best of both worlds; a musician is always tethered to his or her instrument, but here at least you can get a more traditional education as well, if you want it.”