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Saturday, January 26, 2019

Concert Review: Break Glass for Beethoven

Jonathan Biss steps in at Carnegie Hall.
A higher state of Biss: Jonathan Biss and friend.
Photo by David Bazemann.
The piano sonata was still a relatively new form when Beethoven published his first set in 1795. In the next twenty-seven years, the composer would revolutionalize the way composers wrote for the instrument, placing ever greater technical demands not just on the stamina of performers and audiences but on the instruments that were used to play them. Today's piano, the modern concert Steinway favored at Carnegie Hall is an engine of steel, not the wooden box that Beethoven and Liszt were forced to contend with and sometimes break with the ferocity of their attack.

On Thursday night, the pianist Jonathan Biss, who has risen rapidly in the ranks of Beethovenians playing on concert stages around the world offered his interpretation of four very different Beethoven sonatas from different stages in the composer's career. This program was a late change, as Mr. Biss was called in to substitute for the touring virtuoso Leif Ove Andsnes, sidelined with an elbow injury. 

Mr. Biss is a sober and rigorous musician, and his choice of sonatas reflected that. The Sonata No. 6 in F was his jumping-off point, showing the first threads of the long and airy span that Beethoven would cross in the course of moving from the 18th century Classical style toward the wild woods of Romanticism. No. 6 has some of the impetuousness of Haydn and the precision of Bach, particularly in its central Allegretto. And yet, there is a minor-key ritornello in that set of variations that tugs at the heart, a sense of pain and weltschmerz that hints as to what is to come.

The soloist eschewed the familiar "name" sonatas in the first half, opting for the brief but charming No. 20 as the next work. This is a stubby but engaging two minute sonata that contains in it all of Beethoven's lyrical charm. The chorale-like theme in the first movement transits into gleeful arpeggios that leap and dance like innocent children at play. The following menuetto sounds like an old German folk-tune danced slightly heavy-footed, as the joy of movement is more pleasing than grace. 

It was two steps back on the timeline for the next work: the Sonata No. 18 in E flat.. This is a piece nicknamed the "Hunt" (though not by the composer) for its opening theme that resembles the call of a huntsman's horn. More important is the set of questing, suspended chords in the first movement that point the way forward to the "Tristan" chord and the chromatic excesses of Richard Wagner. The Scherzo is pure power and dexterity: demanding pulses played staccatto as if the ideas are bursting forth through a stammer. A lyric menuetto was followed by the explosion of the Presto finale, whose racing, coursing intervals were navigated with smooth runs and lyric technique. 

Three sonatas on the first half are impressive, but small potatoes compared to the big meal that was to follow. For Mr. Biss had selected the Sonata No. 29 in B Flat, known to all by the (idiotic) nickname "Hammerklavier." (That by the way is just the German word for "piano.") Names aside, there is no arguing with the challenges of this four-movement forty-five minute monster of a sonata, which presents a challenge from its ringing opening chords to the epic contrapuntal workout of the final movement. 

Mr. Biss met these challenges with the manner of a classical hero, slashing through the opening chords before taking the listener on a whirlwind tour of Beethoven's inner mind. The opening movement, with its unusual arioso writing for the upper reaches of the scale showed the composer thinking radically in terms of produced sound. The dinky scherzo is challenging, with intervals that leap like a mountain goat. A well-timed cell phone ring could not destroy the Adagio, though Mr. Biss did take a short pause for silence before embarking on its passages of poetic grief. At last came the reward: those cascading fugues that broke over the listener in a flood of inspiration. At last, the bridge had been crosses. 

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