in: Reviews

March 23, 2013

Biss Ineffably Touching



Jonathan Biss (file photo)

Jonathan Biss, thirty-two years old and making his Celebrity Series debut with a recital at Jordan Hall on Friday evening, offered part of an ongoing series of programs under the rubric of “Schumann: Under the Influence.” It was an evening of fine piano playing in which the lyrical and the dramatic were expertly balanced, and I don’t know any pianist since Charles Rosen who is so absorbed in Schumann’s music or who deals with it so beautifully. Biss’s technique is perfectly matched to the demands of the music, which in most cases is inner-directed rather than heroic, requiring particular sensitivity in dynamic layering, even when two melodic lines in different intensities have to be played by a single hand; at the same time, he has all the muscle and projection he needs when a sudden outburst or even a prolonged dramatic narration requires it.  I haven’t yet heard Biss’s Beethoven playing, but he is already well into is projected recording of Beethoven’s complete sonatas. Schumann looked to Beethoven as the spiritual father of his narrative style; at the same time, Schumann was writing for a new kind of piano and with a new pianism, and Jonathan Biss understands this admirably.

Friday’s program planning was instructive, and not many performers would be likely to choose it: in between the individual eight pieces in the Fantasiestücke, op. 12, Biss played five short movements drawn from Leos Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path. The Czech pieces were closely related in mood and in their separate keys to the Schumann that surrounded them, and this unusual ordering was fortunate. Schumann’s Opus 12 includes individual pieces that every pianist knows and loves, but isn’t often that one hears all of the Fantasiestücke played as a group, in which the tonal organization between the consecutive numbers becomes apparent: the cycle begins in D flat major (Des Abends) but regularly retreats to F minor (Aufschwung; In der Nacht), and concludes in F major (Ende vom Lied) with a thrilling whisper of cyclic D flat in the quiet coda.

The Janáček pieces were new to me, but lyrical and even lovely, and admirably positioned among the Schumann. They have a feeling of improvisatory pianism that mirrors Schumann’s own, even in the way the hands are positioned on the piano; some of Janáček’s stylistic quirks, such as the nervous tremolos and predilection for distant flat keys that one hears in other works of his, are evident but hardly disturbing. The third Janáček piece, Dobrou noc! (Good Night!) formed a thoughtful dividing line in the middle of the set; its repeated C major harmonies might seem abrupt after the stark D flat of Schumann’s Grillen, until the listener realizes that the C major is the dominant of the F minor In der Nacht that immediately follows.

All through the quieter numbers of the Fantasiestücke one was aware of Jonathan Biss’s superb control of softer dynamics and interwoven melodic lines, and the audience in Jordan Hall paid rapt attention. In Des Abends the upper melody crosses into the middle of the texture on a shifted beat, and Biss made this subtle transition with complete smoothness. In Warum? there is a dialogue of upper melodies which are close together; yet they were perfectly separated and blended at the same time. (Think ahead to the G-sharp minor variation in the Symphonische Etüden, op. 13.) Biss ably projected the power of Schumann’s textures in the heavy chords and fast octaves of Grillen and Ende vom Lied, but he also brought out the chordal staccato in Fabel with a lightness one would hardly have thought possible.

After the intermission Biss gave us a resplendent performance of Alban Berg’s one-movement Sonata, op. 1. This sonata is brilliant testimony to one of the most remarkable pedagogical relationships in musical history. When Berg began studying theory and composition with Arnold Schoenberg in 1904, he was a nineteen-year-old self-taught amateur of romantic songs; four years later, decisively molded by his teacher, he was a major European master on the threshold of greatness. Biss points to Schumann as an aesthetic ancestor of Berg’s Sonata, but we know, too, that the Schumann influence included Brahms and early Schoenberg that came between. Schoenberg’s models for Berg’s Sonata were most clearly the String Quartet, op. 7, and the Chamber Symphony, op. 9, in which the process of thematic development of small motives is constantly at work from first to last. Berg’s Sonata reveals traditional sonata-form outlines, but they are blurred everywhere by the constantly shifting chromatic harmony—chromatic but still tonal — and by the intricate contrapuntal interpenetration of themes and motives. The Second Theme and Closing Theme areas are differentiated from the rest of the Exposition only by different tempi (Slower than Tempo I and Much slower respectively), while the Closing Theme itself first appears as a seven-note flourish in the middle of the Second Theme area (m. 39). Berg makes this matter of contrasting tempi more difficult because, like Mahler, he declined to provide metronome marks. (In Wozzeck, which he began ten years later, he would go to the opposite extreme of providing fractional metronome markings.) And the Recapitulation section continues the developing process relentlessly. (Schoenberg is supposed to have cautioned: “Never write what a copyist could write for you!,” i.e., never miss an opportunity to make it something different and new.) If I had any criticism to offer about Biss’s expressive performance, it would be that he needed to draw greater contrast between the different indicated tempi but this is really a small point.

All of this adds up to a sonata movement that is uniform (maybe unified is a better word) and continuous in mood, and yet always straining for expression and formal drama as the thematic process is renewed in every bar. Berg peppered his published score with expression marks: accents, dynamic hairpins, ppp, ffff, slurs, phrases, and verbal comments on every page. A composer who was also a performing pianist, as Berg was not, would likely have demanded fewer nuances and less finicky notation. But in Vienna, I saw the autograph score of this Sonata — for decades it was presumed lost, but it turned up safely among Berg’s Nachlass in 1980 — and was amazed to see how few expression marks it contained. That’s all right; it’s the notes, not the qualifiers, that really matter; and I’m sure that Berg would have been entranced by Jonathan Biss’s intense rendition of what has become a cornerstone of 20th-century piano repertoire.

Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, op. 6, from 1837, are more personal than the Fantasiestücke: to an extent, they constitute private messages between Schumann and his fiancée Clara Wieck (a one-bar motto motive, at the beginning, is by her). They are also a dialogue between their beloved eidolons, Florestan and Eusebius, representing respectively their Dionysian and Apollonian personalities within the David League. The Davidsbündlertänze may not be as well known as Carnaval or the Phantasie, but they are possibly even more lovable; Biss played the original edition of these eighteen gems, and the love was apparent at every moment. (The second edition of the score, prepared at Clara’s behest, changes some details of the composition and strips out the programmatic indications.) The pieces lack titles but instead are designated by their tempo markings, and those of the second edition, not the first, somehow got printed in the program; thus no. 3 was given as Mit Humor, but in the original edition it is marked Etwas hahnbüchen, an archaic term which Ernest Hutcheson, who studied in Germany, translates as “Rather cockeyed.” (See his delightful book, The Literature of the Piano, now regrettably out of print.)

Some of the dances are quite short, and only one or two are as long, in terms of elapsed time, as any of the Fantasiestücke. The spectrum of moods is wide, and mostly cleaves to an alternation of the passionate Florestan and pensive Eusebius, or sometimes with both together in the same piece. As with the Fantasiestücke the successive pieces follow a succession of closely-related keys, some of which are mileposts, like B minor in Eusebius’s no. 2 (Innig, a word that is hard to translate into English; try “deeply felt”). B minor returns in no. 13 (Wild und lustig), which reminds you that Brahms liked this key and this style; this is one of the “F. and E.” pieces. No. 17 (Wie aus der Ferne, “as though in the distance”), directly connected to its G major predecessor, is a slow, exquisite B major, as innig as any other part of the cycle, and it suddenly gives way to a heartbreaking cyclic flashback of no. 2 in B minor; this in turn accelerates into a stormy Coda, apparently a triumphant wrapup, “F. and E.” together. But then comes no. 18, a single page in C major, introduced thus: “Quite redundantly Eusebius added the following; but great happiness shone in his eyes the while.” At the very end, three bell-like Cs gleamed at the bottom of the piano. (I couldn’t help thinking of the three bottom Ds at the end of Chopin’s op. 28 Preludes, as different as could be, but there’s some kind of psychological connection there.) Jonathan Biss played this ineffably touching ending with perfect sense and perfect sensitivity.

For an encore, Biss played no. 5 of the Gesänge der Frühe (Morning Songs), op. 133, Schumann’s last piano composition, written in 1853 when he was gradually losing his mind but still able to produce other-wordly beauty within small frames. It was a nice pendant to an evening of rich thought, inspiration, and superb performance.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.


  1. Mark DevVoto’s program notes are better than the ones in the program, which weren’t bad. I particularly value DeVoto’s Two-paragraph Guide to the Berg Sonata, which I wish I had had a chance to read before the concert.

    I admit that my main response to the programming idea was that a pianist sufficiently under the influence of Schumann can make anything sound like Schumann. I think interspersing the selections from On an Overgrown Path with the pieces from Fantasiestücke did not serve Janáček, of whose piano music I am a loyal advocate, well. I missed the plangent chords, the acerbic, idiosyncratic accents, the insistent repetition of small but complete rhythmic motives, and most of all the sound of a mysterious realm, of apparently simple melodies floating in a tonal netherworld like innocent children far astray. Instead it sounded like lesser Schumann.

    The Berg Sonata was better served, indeed very well served, but it still sounded a little drawn back into the past, with elements connected into phrases where perhaps no phrase was intended, as if the performer had been unable to resist saying the words the composer had chosen to leave unspoken. The recordings with which I am familiar, by Pollini, Uchida, and Glenn Gould, all sound much more modern; of course they may be reading backwards into this very early modernist work an ideal of objective detachment that only became established later, much as the nineteenth century read romanticism backwards into Beethoven.

    The performance of Davidsbündlertänze was absolutely fanastic, as good as I ever expect to
    hear. Biss must have labored mightily over every bar, and then labored
    again to erase all evidence of his effort.

    Comment by SamW — March 27, 2013 at 9:19 am

  2. Mark, Here is the comment on Sonata #1 that somehow seems to have been absorbed by some cybernudniks. I had played this wonderful piece many years ago and loved…love it, and wish I had had your notes above to have in mind while studying it. I hope to work on it again…one fine day with your notes in mind. It is such a romantic and involving piece and the recording of Gould’s that I have I like very much.

    Comment by Diane Asseo Griliches — March 30, 2013 at 1:42 pm

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