The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: American pianist Jonathan Biss talks about writing his e-book on Beethoven as he starts recording all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and thinks about writing future books and making more recordings. Here is Part 1 of 2.

March 1, 2012
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ALERT/REMINDER: TODAY FROM 5 TO 7 P.M., A FREE AND PUBLIC RECEPTION WILL BE HELD AT THE DANE COUNTY AIRPORT FOR THE MAJOR EXHIBIT, TO RUN THROUGH SEPT. 3, BY THE UW TANDEM PRESS AND THE PRO ARTE QUARTET CENTENNIAL COMMITTEE TO MARK THE CENTENNIALS OF BOTH THE UW PRO ARTE STRING QUARTET AND THE WISCONSIN IDEA. THE QUARTET WILL PERFORM LIVE AND THERE WILL BE FOOD AND REFRESHMENTS.

By Jacob Stockinger

I first heard him on recordings. Then I heard him on TV when his teacher Leon Fleisher received the National Medal of the Arts at the Kennedy Center. And then I heard him live in Madison in a thoroughly sublime and poetic performance of a Mozart concerto with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

In every instance, my reaction was the same: American pianist Jonathan Biss (below) is supremely talented, one of the young classical musicians it is important to watch and listen to in coming years.

That impression is only reinforced by the recent release of his first volume of Beethoven sonatas for the Onyx label, which features a mixed recital or program format of four sonatas from the early to the early late periods.

It is an outstanding release, and should receive many awards. I generally do not favor such complete cycles, believing that individual pianists respond to certain individual sonatas better than to all the others.

It is an ambitious and historic feat, to be sure. Still, it is hard to believe it took more than 100 years for the first complete Beethoven sonata cycle (done by Artur Schnabel, below) who taught Biss’ teacher Fleisher) and that since then many others have been done: Alfred Brendel (three times!) Vladimir Ashkenazy, Richard Goode, Stephen Bishop Kovacevich, John Kimura Parker and Paul Lewis, with some other cycles by Garrick Ohlsson and Maurizio Pollini in the works but yet to be completed.

But right now my money is on Biss’ cycle. I find his Beethoven completely absorbing and totally convincing. It offers a quiet virtuosity in music that is extremely hard to play. Yet his astonishing technique never draws attention to itself, but instead always serves the music.

Moreover, his Beethoven is thoroughly musical. Biss neither smoothes over the rough spots nor overemphasizes the spikiness. Instead, each melody, harmony and rhythm seems thoroughly thought out, seems to come from somewhere and then go to somewhere. At all times, Biss’ playing has coherence, conviction and consistency. I love his playing, which has clarity and is never over-pedaled. His readings make both intellectual sense and emotional sense. When I listen to Biss’ Beethoven, I am aware of paying attention to Beethoven, not to Biss.

As if great playing isn’t enough, Biss is articulate and writes well. His e-book  “Beethoven’s Shadow” ($1.99 at Amazon.com) is informative and instructive as well as enjoyable. Only a few other performing pianists in history can write as well – Charles Rosen comes immediately to mind, but Rosen writes for a more specialized or learned reader. Biss is more accessible.

The Beethoven sonata cycle will take the 31-year-old Biss almost a decade to complete: 9 CDs over 9 years, to be released one per year. That should show some development and growth, and only adds to the excitement and pleasure.

Biss, an extremely busy concertizing artist, recently took time to do an email Q&A about his Beethoven book and Beethoven sonata recording for The Ear.

Here it is in two parts – the first today, the second part tomorrow.

Why and how did you end up writing the 19,000 word essay “Beethoven’s Shadow” to coincide with the release of the first CD in your 9-year, 9-CD Beethoven sonata cycle for Onyx? What do you hope to communicate with it?

Honestly, from the moment the idea was suggested to me, it was attractive. First of all, I’ve always been interested in writing, both as a creative outlet that is different than playing; and as a way of engaging with music that is broader than preparing for and worrying about the next concert, which obviously I spend much of my time and energy doing.

Then, because the Beethoven sonatas play such an enormous role in my life – in both the most practical and the most spiritual ways – it seemed like now that I was beginning this recording odyssey, it was a good moment to take stock, and try to clarify some of my ideas about this music.

And lastly, a lucky coincidence made it possible: I was approached about writing a Kindle Single in April, and I was already (for years, actually) scheduled to take June through September off; I called it my “sabbatical.” So I had much more mental energy – and much more freedom to stay up until 5 in the morning, pacing around my coffee table – to devote to writing than I normally do.

In a nutshell, what attracts you to Beethoven and to such a mammoth project as recording the cycle of 32 sonatas?

I spent four months of my life trying to explain this, and it remains a very difficult question to answer!

There is the breadth of the expression in these works – they are so different from each other, in language, in character, in affect – which means that they cover an extraordinary amount of territory.

There is the perhaps unequalled skill for development – Beethoven puts his materials through paces that reveal qualities in them we are not initially aware of.

There is the idealism – Beethoven has the uncanny ability to speed up or slow down time at will, and can conjure up the infinite in the process; his music really does imagine a more perfect world.

Perhaps most of all, Beethoven (below) has the strongest and most insistent personality of any great composer. We continue to listen to his music because we simply cannot stop listening.

What do you think you have to say about such iconic works that is new or special?

I feel very strongly that this is not the right way for a performer to approach great music. In the end, any musician’s relationship to a piece of music is, almost by definition, unique. But if you make a concerted effort to try to do something new or different, than you are observing yourself making music, rather than living it.

This kind of self-consciousness is the enemy of music-making; the point is to be as open as possible to your experience of the music, and to try to allow your relationship with it to evolve naturally and perpetually. And with Beethoven, there is an infinite amount in the music to be experienced.

TOMORROW: JONATHAN BISS TALKS ABOUT THE SONATAS ON VOLUME 1 AND HIS FUTURE RECORDING PLANS



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