The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Here are three notable new solo piano releases from Madison-connected pianists — Emanuel Ax, Alessio Bax and Jonathan Biss.

March 28, 2013
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

A New York Times critic recently asked about veteran pianist Emanuel Ax (below): Does this guy ever have an off night? And the answer was no.

Emanuel Ax playing LA Times

Ax, a longtime favorite to Madison audiences ever since he first played here in 1975, is indeed one of the most reliable, consistent and reputable pianists on the circuit these days.

He has technique to spare but he is not known for, or given to, pyrotechnics. No one raves about his octave technique, his huge sound, his fast scales.

But he is known for a certain distinctive and appealing tone and a light touch. More importantly, he is known for always doing justice to the music, not himself, and for favoring naturalness over edginess.

You can hear all this and more – Ax at his best — in his new release for Sony Classical. It is based on the program of theme-and-variations he is now touring with. The CD features Haydn’s “Variations in F Minor,” Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations and Robert Schumann’s “Symphonic Etudes,” in that order. If you get the digital download from iTunes, you can also get Aaron Copland’s Variations that just didn’t fit on the CD but are part of the original program.

All the performance are noteworthy and convincing. But I am especially fond of the Haydn work, which was written, legend has it, at the death of a student who was also the composer’s lover. Ax brings both Classical-era poise and clarity touched with a proto-Romantic sensibility of anguish to this work that is not heard or performed often enough.

The Beethoven variations go back to his early career and he does full justice to it with added subtlety the decades have brought. And the Schumann, which includes some of the posthumous etude variations, are also thoroughly enjoyable.

I have listened to this recording several times and always find new things to appreciate. Here’s hoping he returns soon to Madison, a city The Ear knows that Ax really likes (he has performed several times with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and given several recitals at the Wisconsin Union Theater) and a city that helped give him his start.

Emanuel Ax Variations CD

Jonathan Biss (below) is more than a generation younger than Ax, but he is developing a reputation much like Ax’s. Biss, who performed Mozart concerto sublimely with the Madison Symphony Orchestra several season ago, likes to offer distinctive programs (lately he is combining Schuman and Janacek by interspersing them) and is known more for musicianship than showmanship. But he often shows more edginess, especially with faster tempi. Not for nothing does Biss so identify with the music of Schumann, one of his specialties.

Biss

His second volume of the complete Beethoven Sonatas for Onyx – to be completed over 10 years – often some surprises as well as some predictable qualities.

Yes, it contains the overplayed “Moonlight” Sonata, which, as the recently deceased pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen once remarked, is probably the best-known piece of art music ever written. But Biss turns in a fine, outstanding performance, and then some — although I personally miss the mesmerizing slowness of Vladimir Horowitz’ opening movement, even if Beethoven indicated he wanted it played faster.

But the real interest on this new CD is elsewhere. Start with the early but very big Op. 7 Sonata – another piece that is not played often enough, but which boasts many wonderful moments throughout but especially in the slow movement. Biss is superb in it and makes we want to play it as well as listen to it more. That is high praise, perhaps the highest praise.

Then add in such rarities as the later and relatively short Op. 78 sonata, one Beethoven was said to favor over the “Moonlight” plus the rarely heard G Minor Fantasy, which Biss recorded before for EMI and which is a quirky piece that some think belongs with the Op. 78 sonata.

I like that Biss follows his habit of mixing up the sonatas by drawing from different periods, and it continues to work well. And if you are going to listen to the “Moonlight,” you can’t do better than his version within this context. All that, plus Onyx’s sound is a clear and close-up without being harsh – just superb as ever as a model for other labels.

I just hope Biss returns soon to Madison for a solo recital or a chamber music program, or even, yes, another concerto.

Jonathan BIss Beethoven CD vol. 2

The young and camera-friendly Alessio Bax (below) won the prestigious Leeds Competition and several others. He has played both a solo recital and a duo program with his pianist wife Lucille Chung in Madison at Farley’s House of Pianos. He has developed quite the reputation with high praise heaped particularly on his technique as well as some unusual repertoire, including his recording of Bach transcriptions.

Alessio Bax 1

When you hear his new CD of Brahms for Signum Classics, you will understand why. For beautiful music, there are the Op. 10 Ballades and the eight Op. 76 pieces and intermezzi. But for sheer breath-taking virtuosity it is hard to beat the “Paganini” Variations, which he performs to perfection, bringing the music rather than his technical prowess to the fore. An added piece of razzle-dazzle is Gyorgy Cziffra’s arrangement of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 (see and hear it performed live by Bax in a YouTube video at the bottom).

But Bax also possess great tone, and a wonderful sense of line and lyrical pacing that allow the thickly scored Brahms miniatures to breathe and make sense. He should definitely return soon to Mad City.

I myself like more mixed recital programs like Ax’s, ones built around a central theme or a connection that puts pieces and composers into dialogue with and among each other. And I think that labels are turning more and more to such programs as many buyers and listeners already own compete cycles of certain works by certain composers.

All in all, these new releases bodes well for a new generation of pianists who impress us with their musicianship as well as their technique, but who are still not well enough known to the public. And The Ear says it again: May Emanuel Ax, Jonathan Biss and Alessio Bax all return soon to Madison for recitals, concertos or even chamber music.

Alessio Bax Brahms CD


Classical music: During “Schumann Week” at NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog, American pianist Jonathan Biss excelled in exploring and explaining the music and life of the prototypical Romantic composer.

October 21, 2012
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s not as if the music of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) hasn’t found a secure place in the repertoire. His piano music, chamber music, songs and orchestral music are all pretty standard fare and are performed and heard often.

And yet Robert Schumann (below, in a photo from 1850), who started out as a music critic and would-be concert pianist before turning to composing, still remains an enigmatic figure whose personal life and musical compositions offer many mysteries to explore. This is especially true of the role of his mental illness and the quality of his late-life compositions.

Two weeks ago, NPR and its terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence” offered a mini-seminar on Schumann. It used many audio samples, including playing and insightful commentary by the contributor Jonathan Biss (below, in a photo by Jillian Edelstein) and others, including Maurizio Pollini, Sviatoslav Richter, Andras Schiff and Radu Lupu.

The young American pianist has recorded several outstanding CDs for EMI of major solo piano works of Schumann. His latest release is a terrific new recording of Schumann’s upbeat and extroverted Piano Quintet, coupled with Dvorak’s Piano Quintet, with the Elias String Quartet for the Onyx label).

Biss has also just published an outstandingly informative and personally revealing e-book on Schumann called “A Pianist Under the Influence” (below, $1.99 at amazon.com). Biss has also launched a season-long major project and international 30-concert tour — called “Schumann: Under the Influence” — of performing Schumann’s works with other instrumentalists and singers.

Biss also played the piano for NPR, which offers samples on its website.

HERE ARE THE SELECTIONS OR TOPICS OF THE WEEK-LONG EXPLORATION, IN ORDER FROM TOP TO BOTTOM EQUALING FIRST TO LAST. THE EAR LEARNED A LOT ABOUT SCHUMANN AND HOPES YOU DO TOO.

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Schumann, with some audio samples to highlight the discussion:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/20/161482421/5-things-you-never-knew-about-schumann

Pianist and Schumann enthusiast Jonathan Biss Shoots Down Schumann Detractors:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/26/161810687/jonathan-biss-shooting-down-the-schumann-detractors

How the Schumann’s  (below) – Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck — used an unusual joint written Journal more than conversation to communicate:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/26/161842022/jonathan-biss-meet-the-schumanns-and-their-cryptic-communications

How Schumann created and furthered a Culture of Musical Nostalgia:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/26/161847811/jonathan-biss-schumanns-culture-of-musical-nostalgia

I love Schumann’s sense of bittersweet melody and harmony, his sense of longing and search for belonging, and have many favorite pieces.

But perhaps my most favorite work is the second section of “Kreisleriana,” which is about his longing for Clara before they were married and which was dedicated to Chopin. (Chopin dedicated his Ballade No. 2 to Schumann, and Chopin’s career was launched early by published praise from Schumann, who was writing as a critic.)

Perhaps because I heard it early on, I find the performance by Martha Argerich particularly moving. Here is that movement performed by Argerich. (Biss’ outstanding and beautiful recording of the complete “Kreisleriana,” which runs to more than 33 minutes, is also available on YouTube.):


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
4 Comments

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 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 (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 …


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
2 Comments

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



    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,202 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,080,049 hits
%d bloggers like this: