Jonathan Biss Recital at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts

This afternoon, Jonathan Biss played a piano recital at Town Hall in Manhattan under the auspices of Peoples' Symphony Concerts.  This was the last concert of the season on PSC's Festival Series at Town Hall on Sunday afternoons.  This year's concerts were all dedicated to commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Marlboro Music Festival by featuring musicians who have participated in Marlboro.

Jonathan Biss began going to Marlboro as a teenager, and has returned in recent years as a professional concert and recording artist.  (He's about 30.)  I've heard him play several times at PSC and have some of his recordings.  He rates highly in my book.  I feel a bit of a connection here, since one of the first concerts I attended by the Boston Symphony when I moved to the Boston area for law school featured his mother, Miriam Fried, as soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto. (This was several years before Mr. Biss was born.)  When he emerged on the scene as a performer, I took a special interest as a result. 

I had a mixed reaction to this afternoon's recital.  I couldn't help making comparisons to the piano-playing I heard last night from Yuja Wang at the NY Philharmonic.  There is a bit of apples and oranges in this, of course, since she was playing a concerto – Prokofiev No. 3 – and he was playing solo music in different halls and by different composers.  But from a broad perspective, I would have to say that Wang has the more solid, polished technique, while Biss is at this stage in his career the better musician. 

Wang played the Prokofiev concerto, a celebrated giant-slayer, almost note-perfectly.  Indeed, I've been a fan of the piece for almost half a century and know it very well, and I only heard one little misfire: a wrong hand placement on one chord during the super-fast finale of the last movement.  On the other hand, I thought there was lots of technique on display but lots of room for growth in terms of interpretive judgment.

This afternoon, I couldn't held noticing that Biss's playing in the Beethoven sonatas (Nos. 5, 14 and 26 dispersed through the program) included some painful wrong notes in a few spots, and a few points that sounded more like banging than loud playing.  On the other hand, in all the pieces on the program, I had the feeling of intense, mature musical engagement.  That is, the occasional wrong note is not as important as making a coherent musical statement, getting to the heart of the music, and there Biss beats Wang by an appreciable margin.  (She's a bit younger than he is – at least a few years – so this may be a function of time and experience as much as anything else.)

Taken on its own, this was a fine recital by Biss, thoughtfully laid out to intersperse some prime Janacek – "In the Mists" – between two Beethoven sonatas in the first half, and beginning the second half with a new piece written for Biss by David Ludwig, "Lunaire Variations."  The formal program concluded with Beethoven's Sonata No. 26, with a brief Schumann encore, a movement from Kreisleriana.

Mr. Ludwig's piece was introduced from the stage by the composer, which was helpful to me and I'm sure the rest of the audience, as the brief biographical note in the printed program said nothing about the piece!  Mr. Ludwig was inspired by the centenary of Arnold Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" to write a set of piano variations based on motifs from that work, specifically the final "book" of poems set by Schoenberg.  On first hearing I found the music to be quite interesting, being aided as well by being able to follow the score (using my opera glasses) from the prime seat I enjoy for these events.  I hope that Biss keeps the piece in his repertory and plays it often, because I suspect that over time he will find ways to make it increasingly effective as a musical statement.  And I hope he gets to record it, because I think working it up for a recording will help him to find many more things in the piece, and I think that getting to hear it repeatedly in a recording would help me to hear more things in it!

As to Biss's Beethoven, it is solid, serious, and very mainstream in terms of tempi.  Definitely worth hearing.  I think we are spoiled by recordings, with their multiple takes and patches, to expect technical perfection that is almost impossible to achieve in the context of a recital, and I expect that Biss's recordings of these sonatas as part of the Beethoven project he has undertaken will have all the insights but not the tiny technical flaws.  (Indeed, I noted that in the last movement of Sonata 26, the wrong notes in the exposition were cured in the repeat of the exposition, which was note perfect.)


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