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“Hammerklavier” Sonata or Beethoven’s Revenge

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/24/2019 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No. 6 in F Major, Op. 10, No. 2, No. 20 in G Major, Op. 49, No. 2, No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3, & No. 29 in B-flat Major, “Hammerklavier”, Op. 106
Jonathan Biss (piano)

J. Biss (© Fadi Kheir)

On January 24th , 2019 the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes was supposed to perform a recital at the Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, but an elbow contusion forced him to cancel his whole American tour. Carnegie Hall was fortunate enough to enlist in his stead Jonathan Biss, one of the premiere American pianists of his generation (he is 37), who enjoys a successful career as a soloist, chamber musician, lecturer and recording artist. He is now at the end of a multi-year process of recording all of Beethoven piano sonatas and thus it was not a surprise that for his last-minute replacement program he chose a monographic essay presenting three major sonatas from each of the so-called “periods”. Yes, there was one more, added in a last moment a short, two-movement Sonata in G Major, that only die-hards would consider worthy of being placed alongside the other thirty mighty ones: composer himself calls each of those two Sonatas op. 49 Leichte Sonate (easier sonata).

What Biss was all about in his very individual approach to Beethoven’s music became evident almost from the very first measures of the Sonata in F major and generally I did admire that approach – not only in his Beethoven playing – in which the most relevant ingredient is a propulsion and it’s goal to make the phrase move ahead.

The two opening chords are followed by a quick triplet which becomes one of the repeating figures/motifs of the movement. From the onset we were confronted with Mr. Biss manner of playing which favors faster or quick notes to be almost invariably played faster than they should. What once was an admirable trait and intent of moving the music forward, with time became a bit of mannerism akin to another great Beethoven interpreter of the past, Artur Schnabel. The old master was known for his interpretive skills if not exactly for the ideal control of his fingers, but Mr. Biss was customarily free of those worries. Listening to the opening Allegro, I was wondering if in his rendition, for unknown reason, Mr. Biss attempted to emulate the said master.

There was on one hand an obvious mastery in understanding the form and attention paid to minutest details in the score, for Mr. Biss is known to know those sonatas as well as anyone in the music business. On the other hand, I was puzzled by the choice of tempi which nearly derailed the last movement, marked Presto. It is a sort of moto perpetuo and a romp at that, but even the very fast tempo indication shouldn’t make the music sound as hectic and borderline out of control as what we heard. An old line of another master, Wilhelm Kempff, came to mind: play allegros not too fast and adagios not too slow.

As if an interlude between the two major sonatas, next we heard a little Sonata in G Major, one that students in music schools try as their first Beethoven. Here there was more reason to be puzzled by our pianist’s presenting of that innocent score. Again the first movement surged ahead nervously and one wondered if the propulsion was intended, which would be hard to justify or just a result of nerves. More surprises came in the second movement Tempo di Menuetto. I am certain that a consummate musician with an extensive knowledge of chamber music knows another instance where that theme is being used by Beethoven. So it was surprising that a charming movement that we know from the Septet in E flat would be approached here in such a stern, unlovable fashion and where once again fast notes were simply played with a scant control. A puzzle, especially coming from a pianist of such ability.

Sonata in E-flat fared much better though even there the same issues appeared. There was much more elegance and grace, attention to details and some wonderful moments in the “barking” part in the development section. I applaud the way Mr. Biss approached the very beginning which often is stretched beyond necessity, but here that afore mentioned propensity for once worked very well. Yet there was again that display of fingers running away (Barenboim syndrome?) and there were several places where one would wish a little lingering on the notes. Beethoven does in this movement something quite unusual: he twice presents a little right hand only cadenza of fast-note twists and turns which here sounded a little mechanical. I somehow can’t believe that the composer really want them to be played exactly in tempo, but it might be just a matter of a personal difference.

The Scherzo belongs to the most punishing movements in Beethoven sonatas and it is an exercise in fast notes staccato playing, mostly in the left hand: here Mr. Biss showed a real mastery and fearlessly soldiered on with an impressive display of stamina, accuracy and precision. In the third movement also marked Menuetto, Mr. Biss’ vocal approach seemed to work infinitely better than in the previous sonata. Here the faster than unusual tempo worked to a much better effect and illuminated the elegance of the score allowing pianist to show some fine sensitivity. The final Presto con fuoco fell again a victim of a tempo that probably no pianist can sustain and the music doesn’t need. Here I suspect the nerves which sometimes cause us to play faster than we can or even imagine possible.

If there are some Mount Everests in the piano repertory, Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata belongs to them. The difficulties lie perhaps not exclusively in the strictly technical demands but also in the endurance as well as immense mental strain when comes to the colossal fugue which ends the piece. Mr. Biss has already recorded the work and must know it inside out for without that you don’t attempt to hack it.

There were several admirable moments in each of the first three movements that proved the inquisitive mind, knowledge of style, sense of architecture: those are all a salient features of all Biss’ interpretations for he is one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable musician before the public. In the opening pages of the work he took a tempo according to composer’s metronome markings and – if I saw correctly- played the opening as the “strict-beethovenians” demand, which is with one hand. Needless to say, in my mind this constitutes an absurd approach, but we can differ in our opinions. That opening Allegro had all the demanded drive, vigor, and character yet the sense of unsteadiness prevailed even there. This listener had again a feeling that our pianist tried to out-Schnabel the master down to strictly technical problems, for again it was not a model of cleanliness. The transcendental, emotional, spiritual Adagio sostenuto, which can find parallel only in the Ninth Symphony or some late quartets started again in a much quicker pace that one would expect, but here the “andante” feeling paid off: the structure had almost a sense of improvisation as if composed on the spot. That approach worked until the theme came back, this time with ornamentation and the quick tempo robbed the music of much needed nobility, gravitas and affection. I suppose that was not a case of nerves but rather intentional and that’s why I have an esthetic issue with the concept. I wish that in that very moment Mr. Biss went back to Schnabel’s recording for even though the master prefers a rather fast tempo, in the recap of Adagio he sings out the embellishments rather than render then trivial, insignificant as in case of the Carnegie Hall performance.

As for the notorious fugue: I suppose each measure taken separately is probably no more difficult than a similar part in one of Bach’s four part fugues. However in Beethoven the sheer length of the fugue combined with the fast tempo constitutes a nasty, tricky, thorny test for the fingers and for memory. If it was up to me I’d insist that pianists use the score for that last, exhausting movement: Beethoven already punished them enough, one doesn’t need more self-inflicted punishment. Neither fingers nor memory served our pianist well in the fugue: the effort was felt on both sides of the stage.

Lest one thinks that this writer is poorly predisposed to the art of Mr. Biss, I haste to assure such reader that for nearly last two decades Mr. Biss was considered by me as one of the foremost musicians who I held in highest admiration. What worries me here is not some intermittent technical imperfections, nervousness or even memory problems: I am much more concerned about the prevailing and disturbing mannerism in which the effect of already mentioned, and sometimes welcomed, propulsion causes not only tempos to be on a fast side but destroys proportions between slower and faster notes. Alas, this mannerism seems rather to be intended and in opinion of this writer rarely works to the advantage of the scores performed.

When the next season Mr. Biss comes back to the 92 Street Y in order to play Beethoven’s last three sonatas, I sincerely hope that my previous enthusiasm and admiration for that pianist will come back with the full force.

Roman Markowicz



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