A Bissel Beethoven

July 30, 2013 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The second International Pianists in Recital concert for the year was a night out for Beethoven-philes as Jonathan Biss stacked four sonatas on top of one another, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.


Jonathan Biss

Jonathan Biss

Besides being a fine pianist, Biss writes his own, very entertaining program notes, which may eventually out-distinguish his playing. He begins by saying, “few composers can sustain a complete program, but Beethoven is one of them.”

Thus he served a banquet of exclusively Beethoven to prove the point. I am still not convinced, but going by the number of bums on seats in the Recital Hall I had to admit he was probably right.

One reason is that Beethoven’s 32 sonatas for piano are staggering in their inventiveness and variety. And, as a concert-going colleague said, “playing this stuff is like walking a tightrope with no safety net.”  That makes it exciting. There is nowhere to hide when things go wrong – as they did for Jonathan Biss who hit the cracks quite a few times. But wrong notes don’t bother me. They make a live performance real as the musician risks all over a short space of time. I want to be transported by the shape of the music, not distracted by a few odd notes.

Having said that, I am not a fan of Biss’s technique. If you’re going to claim to be a Beethoven specialist (he’s recording all the sonatas as a long term project) then you have to offer something extraordinary because you’re up against a glittering collection of recorded Beethoven geniuses. Based on this concert, Biss is still in the improvers’ team.

The opening sonata was No 15 in D, Op.28 sometimes called the ‘Pastorale’. It is a substantial work in four movements. To quote Biss “it murmurs its way into being; the gentle pulsation of the base gives the impression of having existed silently for all eternity.” But it soon demands some rushing scale passages that confront the player with the choice of clean, even playing or a heavy foot on the sustaining pedal to apply some grease to the task. Biss went for the pedal – and that became typical of his playing throughout the four sonatas.

The fourth movement, with its upsweeping broken chords suited Biss and he made them sound very satisfying. He also established in this sonata a fine sense of detail, able to play very softly but clearly.

The second offering, the Sonata No 16 in G, Op 31 No1 was an interesting choice because it was Beethoven clowning around. The first movement puts the right and left hand at odds with their timing, and throws in some very rapid passages that might have been a Czerny exercise. Again Biss was a tad short of the clarity called for, preferring to lean on the pedal – although by this time he was warmed up and right into fun Beethoven was having with his listeners.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

The second movement begins with a series of trills, which Biss handled superbly, as he did the runs that sounded occasionally like Chopin. In fact, we were now listening to Beethoven sending up Italian opera – and still managing to sound romantic through the laughter.

The third movement was not quite so funny, but as Biss points out in his notes: “It was a crucial source of inspiration to no less genius than Schubert who used it as a very literal model for the final of his last masterpieces – the A major piano sonata. (The September recital program will feature this sonata played by Ingrid Fliter).

The third offering, the sonata No. 24 in F sharp Op 78, draws this delicious comment from Biss: “  . . . it contains no slow music. Certainly not the key – F sharp major, the porcupine of tonalities.”

The second movement is difficult to control. It can sound overly jumpy and jerky when its technical demands take too much attention – as they did with Biss.

Arguably, he best had been saved for last: the sonata No. 21 in C, Op 53, dedicated to Count Waldstein. Biss writes: “It is so often played it is difficult to hear with open ears, and it is done no favours by the hordes of piano students tho tear into it with mostly misdirected enthusiasm.”

From the first note, this sonata places great technical demands on the performer. It calls for very precise tempi and not too much pedal. I so wanted Biss to be triumphant but he fell short. As the introduction to the final movement passed with great promise, I waited for the fizz of Champagne breaking the surface to take us through, but it didn’t really happen. One of the problems for any pianist is that this movement is so well known that only the mighty succeed in appearing to nail it. Biss didn’t make a mess of it by any means but it just didn’t scale the heights you get from the likes of Stephen Kovacevish.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.


One Response to “A Bissel Beethoven”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    No doubt a fantastic experience. Just seeing young musicians still passionate…..

    Yet, now, still here in Bucharest, get this. Daily on a French TV chanell, Intermezzo, I get Baremboim, among others, doing all Beethoven;s sonatas, you know the old recordings/video.

    But wait there is a lot more !
    In Sept we have the Enescu Festival and get this:
    Baremboim conducting Staatskapelle LUPU doing Beethoven 4th
    Baremboim AND Lupu doing Mozart double piano concerto K365
    Yuja Wang Tchaikovski Nr. 1 with Pittsburg SO, Manfred Honeck cond.
    Lupu Schubert recital
    Israeli Tamuz Quartet
    Zuckerman recital
    Emanuel Ax Beethoven 3rd with Mariss Jansons and R. Concertgebow

    and more
    howzat !!!

    and I secured tickets for most of them………….
    but there is still more……………I’ll be back in Sydney right after that !!!!!

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