Favourable reviews of the first two volumes of the American pianist Jonathan Biss’s traversal of all Beethoven’s sonatas (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2) set high expectations and I was not disappointed.
This performer is a thinker with the wherewithal to translate his ideas into great performances. The first adjective that came into my head after of a few bars of Op. 28 was ‘intelligent’, and it kept returning. I knew that assessment was right when I read the many insights and thought-provoking comments in the liner notes.
I ought to mention a contrary view - found on websites other than MusicWeb International - that Biss’s playing, while musical, is too well mannered, somehow lacking a Beethovenian spark. This is nonsense; we should be more than happy to hear what’s written on the page without exaggeration, with markings observed and a wide variety of articulation. Those who crave performances that reinforce an image of Beethoven as a superhuman titan forget how genial and mellow Beethoven’s creations can be. Op. 28 is one of those, whether or not you take the ‘Pastorale’ nickname as indicative.
Comparisons with the more off-beat interpretations show how an apparently straightforward account gives a more satisfying result. HJ Lim’s controversial set sometimes provides unexpected insights but often simply distracts. For example, in the Andante movement of the Op. 28 sonata, Lim accompanies the theme legato and pedalled, exaggerates sforzandi, plays the middle and ‘divisions’ sections faster and de-synchronizes the hands. In contrast, Biss’s steady tempo and subtle articulation are enough to do the job to perfection. For example, adherence to the original tempo in the divisions section emphasises how the theme is varied. And it is surprising how much pathos a truly staccato accompaniment can generate at the start of this movement; HJ Lim’s semi-staccato sounds pedestrian and matter-of-fact by comparison, even with all her efforts to sound ‘expressive. How much more effective is the result when she plays straight in the middle section with a steady pulse and sharp articulation but Biss does this all the time and so well.
Talking of de-synchronizing the hands brings us to the G major sonata Op. 31 No.1, the first movement of which continues to amuse us with its parody of the practice - which if you do routinely à la Lim, makes the joke pointless. Biss responds alertly to the many opportunities for wit in this movement, as he does equally well in the third. The florid arioso of the second movement flows in a truly song-like way but without any feeling of parody; Beethoven here delivers a genuine tribute to Italian opera.
Biss comments that this wonderfully entertaining sonata ‘needs to be rescued from obscurity’. Could that be something to do with nicknames? Do sonatas with nicknames get performed or recorded more often, however meaningless the soubriquet? Just a thought, but to level out the playing-field, why don’t we give all the sonatas names? I am sure we could provide more useful labels than the name of the dedicatee (Waldstein) or a meaningless tautology (Hammerklavier).
Biss gives a very fine performance of that altogether grander proposition, Op. 53, but without succumbing to grandiosity. The first movement is athletic with plenty of sparkle. The second is beautifully paced as an anticipatory introduction to the third which begins with as serene statement of the theme as I have ever heard, allowing plenty of scope for dramatic contrast later in the movement. This version is right up there with the best versions (Radu Lupu and Richard Goode come to mind).
For me, these performances based on intelligent musicianship serve Beethoven’s intentions ideally. Just to mention the recording quality; exceptionally natural, spacious and airy, as good as I have heard recently and typical of the high standard of piano-reproduction from the Onyx label.
Previous review: John Quinn
Masterwork Index: Sonata 15 ~~ Sonatas 16 & 21