On Tuesday, December 6, under the auspices of John Orlando’s “Distinguished Artists Concert and Lecture Series,” a near capacity audience at the Peace United Church of Christ in Santa Cruz, was privileged to hear the fine pianist Jonathan Biss, in recital. Mr. Biss presented a program of solidly Germanic repertoire, with an “Amuse-Bouche” (a stylish hors d’ouevre) from Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag thrown in. Despite his relatively young age of 36, Mr. Biss is immersed in this music through years of study with great teachers, including with the distinguished Leon Fleisher at the Curtis Institute, where Biss now is on the faculty. The program we heard included an early and late Sonata by Beethoven, a composer very close to Mr. Biss’s heart, for he has embarked on a 9-year project to record all 32 sonatas. He is also the lecturer on a significant online course, entitled Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, which has reached over 150,000 people in 185 countries https://www.coursera.org/learn/beethoven-piano-sonatas. It is obvious Mr. Biss approaches the learning and performing of this music very seriously, seeing it as an ever-present challenge and struggle to do justice to these great masterworks. This reverence and commitment lends power and authority to his performances.
We were introduced to his approach at the beginning of the program with Beethoven’s Op. 7 Sonata. This is an early work that is performed very rarely, perhaps due to the nearly 30-minute duration of its four movements. Mr. Biss, in general, made us understand what a great work this is, although it was unfortunately clear from the opening bars that the Peace United Church of Christ in Santa Cruz is NOT the best venue for piano recitals. Not only are there poor sight lines –the lack of elevated stage and stepped seating is compensated by two video monitors strategically placed to allow audience members to see the performer, but the acoustics are so overly reverberant that much of the sound is unclear and muddy. In the first movement, although Mr. Biss communicated a remarkable propulsive drive and grandeur, powerful bass octaves completely overpowered the right hand’s intricate passages. In the Largo Second movement, we had a respite due to the slower tempo and simple chordal elements. Here was where we were able to appreciate the pianist’s perceptive grasp of musical structure and phrasing. With its smaller musical segments broken up by lengthy and frequent rests, it would be easy for the music to fracture, but in Mr. Biss’s hands these moments of silence became integral parts of the musical phrase. The chords were beautifully voiced and the solemn tempo never dragged.
In the Allegro Third movement, a delightful sense of buoyancy, delicacy and subtlety of phrase was demonstrated and Mr. Biss continued to elicit a beautiful tone from the fine Yamaha CFX concert grand. However, the louder segments were still producing frustratingly muddy sound. In the fourth movement, the acoustic issues continued and I was left wishing I could hear everything Mr. Biss was playing. It was clear we were hearing a pianist who knew how to give life to this music. He has a vital conception of the music, he was playing every phrase with intensity, and he knew exactly want he wanted to communicate to the audience. One annoying distraction needs to be mentioned — a hearing aid that never seemed to stop squealing throughout the concert.
After experiencing the acoustics problems in the Op. 7 Sonata, I was more than a little apprehensive about the second work on the program, the Brahms, Op. 118 Klavierstücke. As with so many Brahms’ piano works, it contains thick textures where bringing out inner voices to form clear phrases is critical. It is also music that definitely requires artistic pedaling — nearly impossible in this acoustically live space. The first intermezzo was played at such a brisk tempo it seemed thrown off as a brief introduction to the rest of the suite and lacking the sweeping phrasing and rubato we normally hear. The famous A Major Intermezzo, which followed, was again taken at a tempo that was again a little too fast for my taste. Having witnessed his ability to maintain phrasing and momentum in much slower tempos, I think it would have been more effective for Mr. Biss to linger more on the staggeringly beautiful passages of this piece. It should also be noted that one way to get more clarity from a overly resonant hall is to SLOW things down. The quick tempi continued with the Ballade where the sound continued to be muddy. He didn’t slow down in the middle section of this piece that I would have loved to enjoy a little longer. In the following Intermezzo in F minor it is difficult to achieve clarity under normal circumstances, and I almost felt the pianist rushing in frustration just to get done with it. Luckily, the following Romanze is a work more conducive to the acoustics, and Mr. Biss produced well-voiced chords and was able bring out inner musical lines with more clarity. The final piece of the opus has elements which can almost mimic sounds in the distance which worked well for the church since sound reflects from a lot of different points. Mr. Biss took advantage and played the haunting opening and the rest of the work gorgeously. It was by far the most successful piece of the set.
After an intermission, the pianist returned with six works from the contemporary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag’s Jatekok series. Mr. Biss evidently knows the composer personally and told the story from the stage that Kurtag for a long time felt paralyzed by the music of the past (he loved it so much); and it was his therapist who suggested he start composing by writing just “tiny” works to break this impasse. These exercises became his Jatekok series of short pieces, where there is now 8 volumes. Jatekok means games in Hungarian. Kurtag was inspired by the way young children approach the piano as a toy, expressing the spontaneity and joy in making different sounds on the instrument. In these short miniatures performed here, we experienced echo effects, overtones, atmospherics and other sound effects that play with what the piano can produce. In this instance, the resonant hall actually enhanced the quality of this performance. I also felt these short pieces acted as needed palette cleanser before what was to come.
The final work on the program was the great, last piano sonata by Beethoven, Op. 111. It is Beethoven’s final statement in the piano sonata genre and tests a pianist’s technical prowess and the ability to unravel and master intricate structural complexities. However, its most important challenge is whether the performer has the spiritual depth to reveal the profundity and sublimity of this masterwork. Does he/she have the respect, nay, the reverence for the piece to give a performance worthy of its significance? A measure of this is where Op. 111 is inserted into a recital program. I have to say that programming anything after such a profound musical statement takes away from it, almost telegraphing that this may show off my technique and how well I play a fugue but this is not going to be the metaphysical experience which can stay with a listener well beyond when the last note dissolves. Let there be no doubt that Mr. Biss brings devout reverence and spiritual depth to his performance of Op. 111. Beyond the performance itself, his reverent approach assisted the listener to achieve a spiritual experience. Such is the potential power of Beethoven’s last, great piano sonata.
Mr. Biss launched into the Maestoso first movement producing full, beautifully nuanced sounds from the instrument. As the Allegro con brio began I held my breath as the sixteenth note passages began going between one hand, with octaves in the other then switching with the sixteenth notes in both hands at once. This is a highly virtuosic section which can foil even extremely gifted pianists. Mr. Biss, even in this overly resonant hall, kept every note and phrase clean, clear and sparkling. I was careful to observe how judiciously and minimally he used the damper pedal and let the acoustics of the hall do that work for him. Perhaps, he made conscious adjustments to accommodate the surroundings, but it was a happy change from the earlier Op. 7 Sonata.
After a significant pause between movements, he began the Arietta (a theme with eight variations) again showing how he can hold the listener spellbound, even with simple, slow chord progressions. In the third rollicking variation, Mr. Biss picked the perfect tempo and displayed a wonderful propulsive buoyancy—almost a jazz-like swing. As we moved towards the conclusion, he elicited more gorgeous sounds from the piano — beautiful sparkling trills, everything with clarity and the resonance of the hall was (this time) working with him not against him. As he struck the final note, Mr. Biss paused with his hands over the piano to allow the power of what we experienced to resonate beyond the sound itself. It was a masterful performance of a masterwork.
And then to another test of a pianist’s respect for Op. 111: Encore or no Encore. Despite a sustained standing ovation, there was none.