Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Pianist Jonathan Biss (USA) performs a solo recital at the International YMCA, Jerusalem

Photo: Benjamin Ealowega
Concert No.3 of the Jerusalem Music Centre’s 2017-2018 International Series, taking place at the Jerusalem International YMCA on November 16th 2017, featured American pianist Jonathan Biss in a solo recital. Coming from a family of professional musicians, Jonathan Biss, in addition to his performance schedule, shares his musical knowledge and ideas in his writing and teaching. A member of faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music, he also engages in teaching online and is in the midst of a nine-year recording project of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas.

The recital opened with W.A.Mozart’s Piano Sonata No.8 in A-minor K.310, written in 1778 and one of only two piano sonatas the composer wrote in minor keys. It also happens to be  one of Mozart’s most dramatic and tragic-sounding pieces. Whether this was an expression of events of the 22-year-old composer’s life at the time (work dissatisfaction, his mother’s death) or perhaps the influence of Mozart’s deep involvement with Johann Schobert’s sonatas, which display Romantic tendencies and  sharp contrasts, even rage and despair, we can not know.  Biss’s reading of the opening Allegro maestoso movement, at times more “furioso” than “maestoso” was stormy and exciting; his brilliant technique served the movement’s drama well. The slow movement emerged rich in detail, certainly charming but not heart-on-sleeve playing. In repeating sections, Biss would invite his listener to hear a new take on the same music. In both outer movements, the pianist made extensive use of the sustaining pedal in runs.

Distinguished American composer, pianist, conductor and teacher Leon Kirchner (1919-2009) composed Interlude II for Jonathan Biss. The short piece, comprising two contrasting sections to be played without a break, was inspired by an earlier dramatic work of the composer - a small opera based on texts of five American poets. Interlude II (2002) reflects two scenes from it, but Kirchner leaves the audience “to decipher the complexities of the work, and its gestalt.” So, what the listener hears is a somewhat programmatic work on the part of the composer, but without the listener being aware of its content. Indeed, this is a mood piece alternating between full, complex textures and pensive, personal fragility of utterance, its shaping and wonderful palette of pianistic textures sensitively presented by Biss and with easeful virtuosity. Kirchner’s music, its sound world echoing late Romantic writing as well as his association with the 2nd Viennese School (he had been a student of Schoenberg) is his own voice; it is beguiling and subtle. Biss’s playing paid felicitous homage to the music of this dominant figure of American music, a composer whose works are not heard enough in today’s concert halls.

L. van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.17 opus 31 No.2 in D-minor “Tempest”, composed around 1801, when the composer was already showing signs of deafness, is indeed tempestuous in its first and third movements. In the opening movement, Biss brought out Beethoven’s extreme contrasts of mood, its intense sections of rich textures stormy both in texture and tempo contrasted by calmer sections in which time seemed to stand still, moments of inspiration, as if the pianist was composing these passages himself.  Taking time to spell out the Adagio’s musical agenda, i.e. Beethoven’s thought process, if with some saturation of the sustaining pedal, a sense of well-being pervaded the movement’s recitative-like and beautifully-shaped melodies, with the “tempest” appearing only briefly in the 32nd note arpeggios near the middle of the movement. Taking the listener into the final movement with delightfully light, nimble playing, Biss juxtaposed the movement’s ideas and dynamics, its vivacity now less about struggle and more about joyful and triumphant feelings, as he brought the work to its conclusion with a whisper.

Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C-major op.17, begun in 1836 as a single-movement work reflecting the composer’s long for Clara Wieck, his future wife, ended up as a  work of three movements, each very different emotionally, the massive Fantasie repurposed  to raise money for a monument of Beethoven. Published in 1839 and dedicated to Franz Liszt, the fantasy nevertheless abounds in the passion of young love, as in the tender melodic phrase quoted from Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte” addressing Clara.. Biss enlists his virtuosic technique and creativity  to presents Schumann’s rich, living canvas, indulging in its extravagant outbursts, its lyricism, dreams and its poetry as he displays the composer’s “orchestration” of the piano in an unbridled, uncompromising manner. Schumann’s melodies emerge as lyrical, soaring filaments of yearning, the impassioned motto theme moving the spirit on each new appearance of it. Jonathan Bill’s performance of the Fantasia was engaging,  experiential and rewarding.  


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