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Mind Over Masters

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/21/2011 -  
Leos Janácek: Sonata 1.X.1905, “From the Street”
Bernard Rands: Three Pieces (New York premiere)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in F Minor Op. 57, "Appassionata"
Robert Schumann: Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17

Jonathan Biss (Piano)

J. Biss (© J. Katz/EMI Classics)

An urban legend is told of Jascha Heifetz’s Carnegie Hall debut. During the intermission, says to Mischa Elman, “It’s awfully hot in here, isn’t it?” Leopold Godowsky leans over and replies to them, “Only for violinists.”

While Carnegie Hall was filled with renowned pianists last night for the debut of 30-year-old Jonathan Biss, they probably kept their emotions to themselves. Mr. Biss has been so widely acclaimed for more than a decade that his prowess, intelligence and innovative programing is familiar around the world.

But the audience may have been unprepared that Mr. Biss could turn every work into a testament to the composer. The last time I heard Biss in recital, he was performing with Richard Goode, and that choice says it all, since Messrs Goode and Biss share the same seriousness, depth and intelligence.

As usual, Mr. Biss prepared a most innovative challenging program. But at the end, one rarely thought of either the novelty or the technical demands. One realized that this pianist had added dimensions to music known and involvement to music which was new.

No piece was either austere or showy. Two were tightly logically bound. Two were composed with daring spontaneity. And Mr. Biss began with a rare work by Janácek that seemed to spurt out of the composer’s own veins.

The last time I heard Janácek’s sonata based on the assassination of a worker by a soldier in Brno, the pianist jolted us out of our seats with the whiplash chords and sudden emotions. Mr. Biss could never take that line. The first movement, the prologue to the killing, was played poetically, almost lyrically, held together through sheer tension. All of which made the “Death” movement even more terrifying. Mr. Biss played the fragments of tunes like scratches of folk melodies. Eschewing sentiment, this was a Czech feeling that death is less painful than odd, irregular, the ultimate irony. After all the drama, Mr. Biss’s understated finale was like a question mark about death itself.

B. Rands (© Irene Haupt)

The noted composer Bernard Rands had written his Three Pieces for Mr. Biss, and the program notes offered the composer’s excellent descriptions of how tightly wound the works were, intermingling tonalities, themes and the medley of adoration to Scriabin, Ravel and Debussy. They were useful, for Mr. Rands has always shown an intricacy and logic. Here, one could spot the similarities. But the main point was the finale, written especially for a pianist who can essay the dazzling note repetitions.

In a flashier pianist, that whirling ending would be its own point. Mr. Biss let the fingers do the talking, but the thinking came with balance, with commanding stresses and with an almost unassuming elan.

One hesitates to describe the final works. Everyone knows how exciting it is to play the “Appassionata” as quickly as possible. But that isn’t what the music is there for. Jonathan Biss took the Beethoven sonata and yes, played it quickly enough. But the thunder and lightning, while suitably impressive, gave no indication of his fervor, his fervent attention to every accent, to the fierce pedaling that offered resonance and poetry at once.

The second half was devoted to (and I use that word in both senses), Robert Schumann’s Fantasy, a favorite of the pianist for good reason Schumann wrote it when he was 26, and it qqcoulduu have been played like a young man mooning, doodling, majestically approaching love and fantasy together.

That, though, was not Mr. Biss’s style. His fingers are his tools, but his mind surveys the music. The piece had an internal energy, but it was unhurried. It was majestic when necessary, the muted arpeggios were like fountains when they appeared, and the final invocation did have that caressing dreamy touch without an iota of retarded sentiment.

After such a debut, one had conflicting thoughts. On the one hand, I wanted him to play more. On the other, he had done his part. Mr. Biss did play an encore, the slow movement from Mozart’s K. 330.

After such a world of both heart and emotion, this came as nothing both a benediction and an amen.

Harry Rolnick



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