The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Pianist Jonathan Biss proves a “Titan of Quiet” — a major talent I want to hear live again soon | March 28, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

A reminder: It’s spring break. Because of staffing for the blog, your comments may take a bit longer to get posted. But don’t despair — they will get there.

I don’t expect or even hope to hear a better played Mozart piano concerto in live performance than the one I heard last Sunday afternoon with the American pianist Jonathan Biss and the Madison Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Patrick Strub, of Stuttgart.

Of course, I may hear one as good or even better. But I don’t expect it and I don’t dare even hope for it.

It was that good, and I am that satisfied.

Many of the usual elements that make for great music-making were present: great balance and tight playing.

But what really carried the day for me was the combination of skills Biss brought; a thoughtfulness about the music (all the more remarkable because Biss is, after all, only 29); and an uncanny ability to play softly but with dept and rhythmic flexibility. He plays a phrase as you will rarely hear, which is why the slow movement was especially exquisite and deeply moving.

Some pianists conquer with loud. And Biss can play fast and loud, clear and impassioned, with the best of them, as his recording of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata vividly shows.

But Biss conquers with quiet. Every note he plays seems to come from somewhere and lead to somewhere, creating a sense of necessity, of logic, even of inevitability.

There was no music-box Mozart to be heard here, but instead a composer who changed the course of history and was a master above most masters.

One can only hope EMI allows him to record this concerto – No. 9, K. 271, in E-flat major, the “Jeunehomme” – with the bigger and more mature C major concerto K. 503, that he was originally scheduled to play. That would be something. It would also be great to hear an album of solo Mozart sonatas and rondos, which, in Biss’ hands, might finally sound as deep as they can be.

This concert was also no fluke. I have spent the week listening again to Biss’ recordings of Beethoven and Schubert sonatas and of big Schumann pieces. And they confirm what I heard on Sunday: Biss is a major talent with no end of achievement in sight. In his playing and choice of repertoire, Biss strikes me as a pianist who upholds the legacy of Rudolf Serkin – first a musician, then a pianist.


Of course Strub (below), who did so beautifully last season when he conducted the UW Symphony Orchestra, was also terrific. I thought so and the orchestra players seemed to think so too, judging by their reactions. He was tight and focused, emphasizing structure and taut precision.

You heard that in his reading of von Weber’s Overture to “Oberon,” a finely done curtain-raiser.

And you especially heard it in the early Brahms Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, which concluded the program. (You can also hear in the work why Brahms waited until much later to write symphonies. He has yet to master orchestration.)

It was beautiful Brahms, and the audience liked it a lot.

But it was, at least to my ears anyways, misplaced Brahms.

After the first half, so quiet and poetic, what was really needed was a change of pace or texture, something different and bigger and more dramatic.

I kept thinking “right composer, wrong piece.”

How I would have loved to hear Strub deliver either the First or Fourth Symphony of Brahms. That would have really wrapped things up. And Strub can do big Brahms – as he showed so convincingly last year with UW violinist Felicia Moye in the Brahms Violin Concerto.

In any case, I have two words of advice to local classical music presenters:

First, get Biss back here as soon as possible for a solo recital (the Wisconsin Union Theater comes to mind, where he could also do another Mozart concerto with the UW Symphony Orchestra and maybe a master class too).

Second, bring him and Strub back again – separately or together but preferably together — as soon as possible to do, say, a Beethoven concerto with the MSO. I suspect revelation awaits.

They proved a great combination and one I want to hear live again soon.

Very soon.

What did you think of the concert?

Of Jonathan Biss?

Of Patrick Strub?

Of the program?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music

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