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. Part 2 of 2.

March 2, 2012

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, in a photo by Jillian Edelstein) is supremely talented, one of the young classical musicians to watch and listen to in coming years.

That impression is reinforced by the recent release of 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 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 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 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 (below, in a photo by Jamie Jung), 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 yesterday, the second part today.

Will the program-like sequencing of sonatas (early, middle and early late) on the first CD (below) be how the entire cycle is recorded? Or will you go with a largely chronological order in the future? How do you choose which sonatas to play with which other ones?  What kind of links to you look for?

Each disc will cover as much ground – in terms of date of composition, style, and character – as possible. Because the pace of recording is so slow, I really want each CD to offer a narrative of Beethoven’s evolution. I find it fascinating, because his language changed so very much, and yet the most basic characteristics of his music – the strength, the grit, the searching – are there all the way through.

Beyond that, the links I look for are not ones I could put into words. For example, I do feel a strong kinship between Opus 26 (“Funeral March”) and the “Les Adieux,” even though they have virtually no surface detail in common. In the end, no matter what else is going on, that voice is unmistakable.

Can you briefly go through what distinguishes for you each of the four sonatas you chose for the inaugural CD and what major points you would like the listener to hear in each one?

Op. 10, No. 1: For me, this sonata is all about extremes of pacing. The outer movements are all about restlessness, whereas the slow movement has this quality of incessant expansiveness. The juxtaposition is extremely moving, and when the last movement starts to break down, just before its conclusion, losing steam and approaching the world of the middle movement, the effect is just wonderfully disorienting.

Op. 22: I always come back to the same verb for this piece: it crackles. Beethoven (bel0w) himself loved it, and it has a wit and energy that really do make it irresistible, even though on the surface, it is probably the least adventurous of the four sonatas on the disc. Also remarkable is the operatic nature of the slow movement, which opens with what may be the single longest uninterrupted phrase Beethoven ever wrote – it takes a minute and a half to play, and forms the entire “A” section of the movement.

Op. 26 “Funeral March”: Part of my special fondness for this piece comes from the fact that I was 10 when I learned it! But mostly it comes down to the piece’s weird charm. It’s from 1801 – one of his most experimental years – and hardly anything in it conforms to the model of the sonata he had established to this point. (A slow-ish set of variations to start the work? Really?) The funeral march – played at Beethoven’s own funeral procession – is relentlessly unsentimental, and all the more moving for it.

Op. 81a: Surely this work – the “Les Adieux”  (at bottom) – needs no special pleading. (Not that any of them do, really.) It has probably become famous foremost because it is the closest Beethoven ever came to writing programmatic music. But what is most extraordinary about it is its concentration. It is is compact, built on very little material, and the ambiguous nature of its first two movements gives way to rapturous displays of delight Beethoven ever wrote.

Will you continue to record other works and composers in between the yearly Beethoven releases? For Onyx? Or do you still record for EMI aside from the Beethoven cycle?

Obviously, as far as recording goes, the Beethoven cycle is foremost in my mind at the moment! I do have some other projects in the planning stages – a chamber music disc and a live recital CD. My main recording relationship at this point is with Onyx.

What non-Beethoven CDs are in the works for the future? Solo, chamber works and concertos?

Nothing is 100 percent at the moment, but it looks like I’ll be making a recording of the Schumann and Brahms quintets sometime in the next year; and my next non-Beethoven recital disc will probably be a mix of Schumann and 20th century works. But it’s all still fluid – the planning of the Beethoven is taking up a whole lot of my brain space.

You have recorded a lot of Schumann (below, in a photo from 1850) as well as Mozart and Schubert? Might you write similar essays for other composers and works?

I would love to, for all the same reasons I was moved to write about Beethoven. In fact, that’s the exact list of composers that I feel compelled to explore in a similar way.

The problem is finding the time – without another sabbatical looming, I’m going to need to get a lot better at multi-tasking if there’s any chance of my doing any serious writing.

Are there other composers you feel a special affinity for and whose music you like to play and record? Who are they?

There are many composers I’m drawn to – aside from the ones I’ve mentioned. Haydn, Chopin, Janacek, Brahms and Bartok would all be high on the list, and I’ve played quite a lot of all of their music.

But recording is such a curious activity, which demands so much concentration and conviction. I think I just want a few more concert hall experiences with each before I cross that bridge. Being a pianist means making tough choices – there is too much great music to get to all of it! It’s a very lucky problem to have …

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