Review by: Jed Distler
Artistic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 10
Beethoven’s sonatas have played a dominant role in Jonathan Biss’ recording career from the beginning. I welcomed the 23-year-old pianist’s 2004 EMI recital debut, which contained Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata and Fantasy Op. 77. In 2007 he followed up with another EMI Beethoven recital featuring the Pathétique, the Pastoral, and the Op. 90 and Op. 109 sonatas. By the early 2010s Biss had started recording Beethoven sonatas anew for a projected cycle to be completed in time for the composer’s 250th anniversary year. The first discs appeared on Onyx Classics, followed by several on Meyer Media. Orchid Classics took over for the final volumes, and now offers all nine discs individually, as well as the entire cycle bundled together in this handsomely packaged boxed set.
In contrast to chronologically assembled Beethoven cycles, Biss mixes and matches works from different periods, aiming for variety and contrast. Variety and contrast likewise inform his interpretations. Biss is basically a centrist, whose attitude toward tempos is reasonable rather than fundamentalist. He manages to convey Beethoven’s linear aesthetic and spitfire temperament without sacrificing surface beauty. To be sure, Biss doesn’t get down and dirty as Igor Levit and Friedrich Gulda occasionally do. Nor does he approach Seymour Lipkin’s gaunt, dry-point sound-world or match Stewart Goodyear’s joyful edginess. Perhaps the clarity, directness, proportion, and playfully healthy character of Biss’ interpretations most readily evokes the work of similarly-minded Beethoven practitioners like Richard Goode and Emanuel Ax.
The very first sonata exemplifies these points. Biss takes the opening Allegro at a conservative tempo that sounds closer to a square-cut four beats to a bar rather than the hurling alla breve two that Pollini, Kovacevich, and Schnabel convey. Yet the phrases move forward and the dynamic surges hold attention. Conversely, the pianist brings angular bite and nervous energy to Op. 28’s Scherzo and to his briskly paced Op 10 No. 1 outer movements, while gauging the silences in the Op. 22, Op. 10 No. 2, and Op. 31 No. 1 first movements with astute comic timing.
Also note Biss’ wonderfully lithe and supple Op. 2 No. 3 and Op. 7 outer movements, his well-unified yet flexibly phrased Op. 26 first-movement variations, as well as his carefully organized tempo relationships and emotionally fulfilling finales of Op. 110 and Op. 111. Biss’ resolute steadiness and focus in the Waldstein’s propulsive Allegro con brio creates the illusion of a faster performance than it is, while the harmonic clashes resulting from Beethoven’s controversial long pedal markings in the Rondo resonate to otherworldly effect, yet never lapse into a vague blur.
The Hammerklavier Allegro boasts impressive contrapuntal interplay and narrative flow (like Arrau, Schanbel, Solomon, and Levit, Biss opts for the “inspired misprint” A-sharp in the measures just before the recapitulation, rather than the “safer” A-natural that Brendel, Kempff, Goodyear, and Perahia favor), but, like many pianists, Biss begins the fourth-movement fugue at an optimistic clip that soon settles into something a little more comfortable.
Biss particularly shines in shorter, less “popular” works: I love his pointed voicing of the Op. 78 finale’s rapid major/minor mode shifts, his animated, poker-faced take on Op. 14 No. 2’s central movement, and the songful leeway with which he shapes Op. 90’s second movement.
Out of curiosity, I compared the present cycle’s Appassionata alongside the one on Biss’ aforementioned 2004 debut recital CD. His later Allegro assai is texturally leaner and more dynamically scrupulous, while the central-movement variations are expressively simpler, making points through touch and inflection rather than rubato. In Biss’ remake, the finale’s Coda proves more inhibited and less exciting on the surface. However, his Apollonian and classically scaled approach to the Op. 77 Fantasy gains considerable variety in articulation over its predecessor.
In all, this release represents a significant accomplishment for a pianist on the cusp of his 40th birthday, not to mention a most gratifying and sonically splendid contribution to the Beethoven discography.
Reference Recording: Levit (Sony); Arrau (Decca); Goode (Nonesuch)