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Friday, April 17, 2015

Major Miniature Moments

Pianist Jonathan Biss presented a program of Romantic-era music at Union College’s Memorial Chapel last Sunday that began with its end and finished with – you get the idea.

His inspired choice of opener was Alban Berg’s Sonata, Op. 1, written – or begun – in 1908, and, once the composer accepted his teacher’s suggestion that the single movement was enough, no need to fret that others weren’t forthcoming, published as a ten-minute work.

Jonathan Biss
Photo by Benjamin Ealovega
But ten minutes of well-crafted Berg is wellspring of richness. Biss’s performance emphasized its lyrical nature, even if you might be hard-pressed to walk away whistling any of it. It’s decidedly atonal, but its seeming cacophony isn’t dodecaphonic. That was down the road, and that’s where the Romantic era ended.

Although it’s filled with melodic gestures, the emotional pull of the piece comes from its rising and falling motions in the rhythm, dynamics, tempo, and, ultimately, form – there’s a sonata-allegro framework lurking within.

It was championed in the 1960s by Glenn Gould, whose interpretation since has been criticized as excessively slow and mannered. Biss took a more contemporary approach to this old-fashioned work, keeping the tempos crisp while still informing it with interpretive nuance.

Which set the stage for the next work, by Berg’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. His “Six Little Piano Pieces” (“Sechs kleine Klavierstücke”), Op. 19, date from 1911, when he was still working on his Mahlerian Gurre-Lieder but already was heading down the atonal path that would lead him to his serial technique. True to the description, each piece is astonishingly brief – the whole work clocks in at under five minutes – yet dense with mood and contrast.

Again, Biss brought out the lyricism of the works, highlighting the uncertainty of the second, the bluesiness of the fourth, the whimsy of the fifth, leading us to the intense melancholy of the final piece, a lament for the death of Mahler.

Which made the nine brief pieces that comprise Robert Schumann’s “Forest Scenes” (“Waldszenen”), Op. 82, seem massive by contrast. It’s a later work for the composer, who by this time had achieved skill enough to efficiently say what was needed. The opening work, titled “Entrance,” strikes a folk-melody mood with a hint of hunting horns, horns that would reappear a couple more times in the company of hunters.

Einsame Blumen” (“Flowers Alone”) seemed not a portrait of the flowers themselves but rather a sense of the viewer’s experience of seeing the flowers; “Freundliche Landschaft” (“Welcoming Landscape”) followed some Chopin figurations to an echt-Schumann finish. The oddest piece of the set is “Vogel als Prophet” (“The Prophet Bird”), its little flights up and then down concealing the call of a cuckoo even as it explores a harmonic setting that could be taken for a Duke Ellington piece. It sports an unlikely chorale for its middle section, bringing a sense of peace (and quoting Schumann’s own “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust,” where the choir sings to St. Francis of Assisi) before releasing us back to our uneasy flight.

That’s where Biss’s skill was especially apparent, presenting the disjointed flow of melody with honest simplicity, allowing the contrast between this and the preceding sections to be all the more striking because of that simplicity. The piece ends with a characteristically Schumannesque gesture, a 4/4 movement with a 6/8 feel that ends the journey with a pleasant dance.

The second half of the program was all Beethoven – two sonatas, beginning with his Op. 79, a short work with more than its share of humor. Written in 1809, it’s the 25th of his 32, a confoundingly light piece that also has cuckoo calls hidden within a bouncy first movement that mocks itself before its coda. Again, the genius is in the brevity here: the second movement sings a calm, wistful, Italian-seasoned song that could fit on a 45; the rondo finish is a bagatelle, and wouldn’t have seemed out of place in that collection.

The “Appassionata,” Beethoven’s Sonata No. 23, Op. 57, casts a stormier mood, and how appropriate that Bette Davis played it (or its beginning) in her noir-ish “Deception” from 1946. It suggests dark corners and sudden plot twists. Biss kicked it off with a brisk tempo, but there were changes aplenty as we explored the movement’s complexity.

There are harplike arpeggios in the movement, which need a clarity I didn’t hear, and which I blame on the lively hall and what seemed to be a problem with the instrument’s low end. But the emotional extremes of the movement were well served by the pianist, who sensibly paces his transitions.

The second movement opens with a simple chorale that sounds a bit like the opening of his violin concerto (which he probably was writing at the same time) and proceeds through a series of masterful variations before slamming into a perpetual-motion finale that supercharges at the very end. I was astonished by the crispness Biss brought to that ending, at a tempo that would have derailed many others.

Both sonatas demand a facility good enough to hide the technical challenges, but the interpretive demands are more subtle. You have to know where to caress and when to make it seem as if the music is speaking for itself. Biss isn’t a showy player, so he offers few physical hints about his interpretations, and that’s just fine. He’s bringing the wonderful interpretive quality with which Walter Gieseking informed Beethoven into the 21st century, preserving Romanticism but with a knowledge of historically informed performance.

Gieseking also came through in the encore. Continuing backwards in time, as Biss pointed out, it was the slow movement from Mozart’s Sonata in C, K. 330. After the tragic finish of the Appassionata, it let us out of the hall with a little more cheer.

Jonathan Biss, pianist
Union College Memorial Chapel, April 12

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