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Jonathan Biss Continues Schubert Cycle


Calderwood Hall at the Gardner Museum filled from floor to top rings yesterday afternoon as Jonathan Biss reached midpoint of his survey of Schubert’s last three piano sonatas. The three-concert cycle concludes on April 28th, with the B-flat Major, D 960. The artist’s challenging handout essay invites further examination HERE. Deborah W. Coogan co-sponsored this annual event in memory of her husband, Peter W. Coogan.

Biss began with the Impromptu in A-flat Major, op. 142, no. 2, D 935. Some writers think that the four movements of Opus 142 (Biss played the long F minor first movement at his previous recital) had been intended originally as a Sonata, and this favorite second Impromptu of the set doesn’t sound in the least improvised as the title would suggest; but it is a good opener, and the pianist’s outstanding singing tone and careful breathing and shaping of the melodic line were apparent from the start.

Alvin Singleton’s Bed-Stuy Sonata, composed last year on a Gardner Museum co-commission, often required a more brusque tone than we heard in thr impromptu.  A 17-minute dialogue in short pp chordal whispers and ff bursts of scales segments and figures, interleaved with creative silences and modulated with running fingered octaves; it was always interesting. The composer explained that he grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. His birth year wasn’t listed on the program, but I looked it up; we are both of the same advanced years.

All of Schubert’s last three works for piano are colossi, sprawling and monumental, lasting more than 40 minutes each, and one remembers that they carry the date of September 1828, two months before his death at age 31. Schubert intended to dedicate them to Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), one of the greatest pianists of his time and a composer who bridges the canyon in piano technique between Beethoven and Chopin; but no publisher would take these huge pieces until 1839, two years after Hummel’s death, when Diabelli on his own initiative re-inscribed the Three Great Sonatas to Robert Schumann.

The A major Sonata, D 959, formed the second half of the program, and is at once the most intellectual and dramatic of the three. The first movement begins with big bells, less concise than the beginning of the C minor D 958 but no less forceful.  A short, hymnlike second theme appears a minute later, and from there the movement spins out in a seemingly inexhaustible outpouring of melody that develops as it goes. Forty minutes later, the harmonies of the first four bars return in reverse order, barely changed, in the last bars of the finale. The Andantino in F-sharp minor, 3/8, ruminates on a short-range melody, a different kind of tolling bell, before veering off into an episode of emotional storminess not seen in Schubert since the Wanderer Fantasy, D 760, only to return once more to calm. The bouncy Scherzo that follows has its own storms, with an unforgettable C-sharp minor scale outburst in the middle of C major. The Rondo finale is the most tuneful movement of the four; Schubert recycled 16 bars from his A minor Sonata, D 537 (composed eleven years earlier), with a few small changes promoting it from lieutenant to major general, and expanding a movement of 144 bars to 382. The energy that pervades this finale, driven by triplets, matches its psychological depth…over the entire registral and dynamic range of the piano, and Jonathan Biss mastered its expression at every moment, still fully energized when the audience rose as one in bright appreciation.

Biss obliged with an encore of sublime serenity: no. 2 of the six Moments musicaux, op. 94, D 780.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The artist’s challenging handout essay invites further examination HERE.

    As far as I can tell the challenging essay is not “HERE”. Nor do I see an examination of the essay anywhere. Help!

    Comment by Beverly Woodward — March 25, 2024 at 6:04 pm

  2. Works for me…

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 25, 2024 at 6:35 pm

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