Live Review: Jonathan Biss

Sophie Luo 4 June 2013

10 May 2013, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

Jonathan Biss’ stage presence is unassuming and modest. Last night at the West Road Concert Hall, he walked onstage, bowed to the audience with a smile that almost resembled a grimace, and immediately sat down and began to play. One should never judge a performer by his non-performing persona, however; once at the bench, Biss unleashed an astonishing variety of emotions and energies through his playing.

The first piece on the program was a testament to Biss’ creative vision as a performer: Schumann’s Fantasiestucke, a series of eight short pieces, interspersed with five equally short movements from Leos Janacek’s On an Overgrown Path, Book I. The effect was to achieve what every good mash-up seeks to achieve: an illumination of the uniqueness of each composer’s work combined with a newfound appreciation for the ways in which the two works complement each other.

The titles of Schumann’s and Janacek’s short pieces are evocative, but only to a certain degree; with short pieces like these, it remains to the performer to flesh out the framework of the title into a fully-formed musical image. Biss did this excellently, not only portraying each piece as its own miniature world but switching between each world’s emotional core with agility.

His interpretation of Schumann’s “In der Nacht” (“In the Night”), for instance, immediately conjured up the furtiveness of a nocturnal escapade, or perhaps the feverishness of a sleepless night. Meanwhile, his performance of Janacek’s “Come with Us!” perfectly captured the rosy-cheeked exuberance of a friend’s invitation to join in the fun. “Des Abends” (“In the Evening”) and “Fabel” (“Fable”) — both reminiscent of Schumann’s Kinderszenen — were done with restraint, allowing the pieces’ delicate simplicity to rise to the surface. In Janacek’s “A Blown Away Leaf”, Biss painted a sonic portrait of a leaf drifting in a breeze, whirling in a sudden gust of wind, and finally coming to rest. His clever decision to set it next to the rollicking grandiosity of Schumann’s “Grillen” (“Whims”) emphasized the themes of spontaneity and caprice in each.

The second half of the program featured Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata and Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze, another collection of short pieces functioning as a dialogue between Florestan and Eusebius, the respectively stormy and gentle sides of Schumann’s personality. Biss’ performance of Berg’s sonata, which only has one movement, layered stretches of fiery bravado over small, glimmering moments of tenderness. The work’s dissonance and sensuousness provided a refreshing contrast from the more traditional harmonies of Schumann’s works.

The final piece on the program, Davidsbundlertanze, was written as a series of dialogues between two aspects of Schumann’s personality and named after the Davidsbund, the imaginary society that Schumann created to “fight philistinism in art”. Here, again, Biss showcased the masterful deftness with which he could switch between musical personalities. The bold passion and quiet languor of Florestan and Eusebius were summoned instantly and flawlessly and presented with a dash of humour– as with the fleet “ha- ha!” that ended one movement in the piano’s bass notes. With eighteen movements to the work, though, it would have been nice to see even more nuance brought to life in these two characters rather than just the same aspects of storminess and gentleness.

Biss ended the night with an encore performance of the last movement of Schumann’s last work– the Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations). Sweet and sad, it was a nicely tender way to round out the evening. As Biss’ star continues to rise in the musical world, classical music fans would do well to seize the chance to see him perform live whenever and wherever they can.

Sophie Luo