Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Musical bliss with Jonathan Biss

Photo: Jimmy Katz

I'd never heard pianist Jonathan Biss live before his Celebrity Series debut at Jordan Hall (he's back on April 12 with the Elias String Quartet).

So I wasn't quite prepared for just how great a pianist Mr. Biss actually is.  The greatest of his young generation?  Perhaps.  I don't like to go out on a limb like that, but - it did occur to me that things could work out that way; he's certainly among the greatest already.  He seems to have it all - the touch is focused yet flexible - and secure even in the face of fiendish challenges - while the rubato is superbly calibrated; Biss simply seems to make the piano respond; there's a constant sense of perceptive insight, a subtle eloquence about his playing - the kind of thing that's hard to define, but immediately evident whenever and wherever it's present.

Here's the strange part, though: I became convinced of Mr. Biss's greatness despite the fact that his concert was built around a thesis regarding Schumann that I only agreed with in part - and that he never came close to proving at the keyboard.

But somehow I just didn't care.  Damn, this kid is good; so what if he's got a few crazy ideas about Schumann?  Actually, that's not fair, Biss's ideas aren't crazy, they're just a bit over-stated.  The pianist is stuck on Schumann, and, perhaps like the proverbial man with a hammer who sees only nails, he seems to see Schumann in half the post-romantic repertoire.  Thus his Celebrity Series concert (titled "Schumann: Under the Influence") was built around connections between Schumann and Janácek (somewhat convincingly) and then Alban Berg (not very convincingly at all).

Still, Biss isn't entirely wrong; Schumann's influence does, indeed, run deep; his vision of the lonely artist forging his own structures from an internal dialogue certainly resonates throughout late romanticism, and yes, on into modernism, too.  But it's one thing to make that statement on paper, and quite another to make it at the keyboard.  And I'd argue Biss, for all his talent, hasn't quite figured out how to make his proof in musical terms.

Take the first juxtaposition of the concert - Schumann's familiar Fantasiestücke against Janácek's lesser-known (but perhaps unfairly so) On an Overgrown Path.  Only this proved more of an interpolation, actually; the two piano cycles were entwined together in a manner which shattered their own internal development, but was meant to throw their parallels - and particularly Janácek's debt to Schumann - into high relief.

And at first the effect was striking, particularly as Mr. Biss effectively took two clearly delineated approaches to the two composers; his touch for Schumann was light, forceful, but supple, while the Janácek felt more ruminative (which only seemed appropriate, as indeed, the Janácek pieces are generally thicker in texture than the famously transparent themes of Fantasiestücke).

But here's when things got sticky: Mr. Biss contrived to have his two approaches converge into a blended kind of Schumannian/Janácekian sound - a goal which is provocative in the abstract, but  problematic in practice.  For neither song cycle actually maps to such a development - and what's more, it was hard to see what Mr. Biss was limning from this convergence; instead of forging some new, amalgamated style, he seemed more to be simply denuding both Schumann and Janácek of their idiosyncratic particulars, in order to find some sort of common denominator between them.  And you know what they say about common denominators.  Fantasiestücke famously ends in a kind of parlay between  its composer's combative internal personae (the dreamy "Eusebius" vs. the more gallant "Florestan"); Biss seemed to be hoping for some similar synthesis in his face-off between Schumann and Janácek, but it was hard to see, sans any shared musical text, precisely how this could be brought about.

Still, despite the failed experiment in stylistic curation, Biss carried off evocative renditions of Janácek's "A Blown-Away Leaf" and "The Madonna of Frydek," and he never quite lost sight of the playfully contentious thread that binds together Fantasiestücke.  He didn't convince me, but he certainly seduced me along the way.

And his sheer musicianship saved him from a similar folly in the second half of his program: an attempt to limn Schumann's influence in Alban Berg.  Again, intellectually, there's a case, although surely Schumann's shadow pales next to Schoenberg's when it comes to Berg's Piano Sonata, Op. 1, which self-iterates from an opening phrase into a shifting landscape of tonal clusters rippling over and through the key of B minor.  Berg's neurosis is, to be blunt, far grander and more febrile than Schumann's, and his morphing tonality tends to swamp any hint in the sonata of Schumannian musical debate.  Still, Biss's playing was so clean and committed that the sonata was often thrilling anyway.

From this challenge, Biss then seemed to retreat from his thesis a bit, to the Davidsbündlertänze (Dance of the League of David), Schumann's joyful peroration upon his engagement to Clara Wieck (the title of the cycle refers to yet another of Schumann's rather narcissistic conceits - he imagined himself a follower of King David in his battle against "the Philistines").  Once more Eusebius and Florestan make their appearance, and seemingly quarrel - but I've never felt their dialogue in this case really comes to much; instead, the eighteen "dances" of the Davidsbündlertänze cohere mostly in their passion and energy.  Still, Biss articulated them brilliantly, and at least suggested a kind of architecture - well, a kind of arc - to their progression (the performance was greeted by one excited audience member with an exultant "Bravo!" that seemed to visibly shake Mr. Biss, who plays as if from within a trance).

The crowd called the young pianist back for one encore - the last of Schumann's Gesänge der Frühe ("Songs of Dawn"), which ironically enough, were the final works for piano he composed.  This time no theory got in the way of Biss's subtle, simple, poignant performance.  And the crowd left the concert hall perhaps unconvinced, but clearly impressed all the same.

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