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Archive for April, 2011

Jonathan Biss

Jonathan BissThe man seated next to us in Symphony Center this afternoon had driven down from Wisconsin without knowing that Maurizio Pollini had cancelled several weeks ago. As it turns out, he was also in the wrong seat so we never saw him again, but I hope he decided to stay for the whole of the recital by substitute pianist, Jonathan Biss, because his second-half performance of Schubert’s A-major sonata D959 was the first unequivocally great performance of the concert series this year. I can’t say that the whole recital was at the same elevated level, but anybody capable of playing Schubert with such distinction is a worthy replacement for any pianist.

Biss started his recital with Janáček’s Sonata, 1. X. 1905, named after the date of a student uprising in Brno, that was brutally suppressed with the death of a worker. Since the protest pitted Czech culture against Austro-Hungarian imperialism, the tragedy resonated with Janáček’s rejection of the Germanic musical tradition and the sonata is a good example of the wholly new musical language he created from Moravian and other folk idioms. I think this folk influence has tended to disguise how startlingly original his compositional style is, as revolutionary in its day as anything by Debussy or Scriabin. Seeing the musical score for the first time, it can be difficult to make sense of the music, with its insistently repeated fragments and lack of any obvious linear flow but Janáček builds his musical structure from accumulated detail rather than organic development, creating a mosaic of contrasting moods, sometimes expressed simultaneously. For example, in the opening bars, a lyrical phrase in the right hand is interrupted by angry staccato outbursts in the left, a vivid depiction of irreconcilable conflict. The second movement is haunted by a recurring phrase of infinite desolation, a bewildered lament for lost hope as much as lost life. This is heart-stoppingly tender music, with Biss particularly good at expressing its elegiac introspection.

After this came Schumann’s quirky Kreisleriana. One of Schumann’s more infamous musical markings (in one of his sonatas) was for the pianist to play as fast as possible, followed by demands a few pages later to play even faster. As Brendel wryly pointed out, Schumann may have assumed that the pianist would take the second instruction into account before deciding what the first instruction meant. Whatever Schumann’s intentions, it would not have been fast enough for Biss, who played all the fast sections at vertiginous speed. This was a surprise to me, given his generally rather restrained temperament. I assume that he believes this is impetuous music by a young man in love, one who wanted to throw all caution to the wind, but I’m not sure Biss has the kind of steely articulation needed to bring this off. Sometimes, it just seemed like a mad scramble. Nevertheless, it was interspersed by slower sections played with great tenderness and rapt intensity, Schumann in intimately confessional mood.

And then to the Schubert. Although Schubert’s final sonata is routinely declared his masterpiece, I have always preferred the emotional ebb and flow of the preceding A-major sonata, D959. It contains some of his most psychologically ambiguous music. The first movement starts with supreme confidence, followed by passages of almost skittish happiness and others of child-like lyricism, both of which Biss captured to perfection, particularly in the development section, where he conveyed a wonderful sense of breathless anticipation. There are occasional rumbles of disquiet, but the final page is one of serene repose, exquisitely realized by Biss at his most acutely sensitive.

The confidence of the first movement is followed by a second movement containing some of the most emotionally drained music Schubert ever wrote, and played with moving simplicity by Biss. Just why the promise of the first movement gives way to the despair of the second is not easy to understand, and yet it seems natural. With Schubert, the expectation of joy is always heightened by the ever-present threat of loss, a realization which helps to explain the poignancy of the opening movement’s lyricism. Schubert was keenly aware of his own mortality and wrote here the most personal expression of his private terrors. The central section is surely one of the most explicit depictions of a nervous breakdown in all music, far more gut-wrenching than the melodramatic histrionics in Lucia di Lammermoor, particularly when followed by the desolate reprise of the opening theme.

Schubert seems to recover his composure in the final two movements, though he is rather more subdued than at the start of the sonata. In the last movement, he directly copied the formal structure of the finale of Beethoven’s G-major sonata, op. 31 no. 1, but he loosened the frame to accommodate his more leisurely and expansive style. I sense an attitude of quiet resignation in the generally lyrical flow of this movement, perhaps a conscious decision to live life to the fullest whatever his fears. There is, at the very end, a recollection of the bravado of the sonata’s opening bars, but it is too late to make a difference.

Biss proved to be a natural Schubertian, sensitive to every facet of his complex personality. Like Brendel (and his former pupils, Imogen Cooper and Paul Lewis), he is not afraid to vary the pace, keenly responding to the emotional  oscillations of the music, aware that the classical structure is only a scaffold, on which Schubert hangs his ideas. Like the Schumann piece, this is also the work of a young man, but one who was “much possessed by death”, and thereby able to compose some of the most life-affirming music ever written.

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Leif Ove Andsnes

Leif Ove AndsnesIt had never occurred to me before to compare a musical performance to sofas or sideboards, but the playing of Leif Ove Andsnes in Chicago on Sunday kept bringing to mind high-quality Scandinavian furniture; the clean lines, impeccable finish, functional simplicity, muted colours, the lack of any unnecessary ornamentation. That doesn’t mean that his playing is bloodless and, of course, it is anything but static, but there were times when I longed for some rhetorical excess or a flamboyant gesture, even a little bad taste. On the other hand, the fastidious care with which he plays everything was ideal for Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, in which he perfectly captured their enigmatic moods and delicately precise sonorities. He is a very fine pianist, but not one to show his heart on his sleeve, so perhaps well suited to more emotionally elusive music.

That shouldn’t be a problem with Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, with which he started the recital. The first movement is brisk, the second mysterious, and the final movement alternates the ethereal with passages of aggressive swagger. Andsnes was in effortless control throughout, including the final prestissimo with the last appearance of the Rondo theme atmospherically floating over gentle trills. I was almost relieved to see that he faked the octave glissandi with two hands; I have seen both Emanuel Ax and, I think, Krystian Zimerman play them as written, something I thought impossible on a modern piano, but now I won’t feel so guilty not trying to emulate them. I do wish though that he used more pedal for the main theme. There will always be a debate about how to transfer Beethoven’s pedal markings to a modern piano, but surely he expected there to be some harmonic blurring to lift this melody from the prosaic to the truly haunting.

Andsnes then ventured into Walter Scott territory, with a performance of Brahms’ rather dour Ballades. His earlier restraint served him well here making the climax of the first movement, which is based on a grim poem of Scottish patricide, all the more powerful. All four movements are rather lugubrious in tone, although there are moments of lyrical radiance, well caught by Andsnes, who was also effective in conveying the occasional violent outbursts and spectral agitation. I think I prefer the unbridled inventiveness of Brahms’ youthful sonatas to this Gothic gloom, but Andsnes evidently loves the music.

The final piece in the recital was Beethoven’s last sonata, the Op. 111. I have heard the first movement played with more elemental drama, evoking King Lear raging against the storm. Andsnes eschewed any obvious theatricality, but propelled the music with sufficient energy to give it the necessary epic sweep. This is music that can speak for itself, at least when played with someone of Andsnes’ skill. The second movement brought out some of Andsnes’ most effective playing, starting with a serene simplicity, building up in rhythmic complexity before achieving some kind of transcendent vision. This central section is surely one of the most extraordinary passages in the whole piano literature, a glimpse of heaven from afar, before a sequence of trills suspends time and transports us over the divide, the final pages conveying an ecstatic sense of arrival. If the first movement represents life, filled with frustration and anger, the last seems to be Beethoven’s vision of an after-life, where all worldly ambitions and physical ailments become irrelevant and we achieve a perfect fulfillment. It is no wonder that this was his final piano sonata, although after a space of a few years, he was inspired to relive all of human experience in his Diabelli variations. Even if we have glimpsed eternity, we still have to go on living in the present.

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