The 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven remain a core foundation of the piano repertoire. Most student pianists have to tackle them and professionals who specialise in the classical period often come back to them at various points in their careers to see how differently they respond in middle or later life.
For Jonathan Biss it seems the sonatas will provide a rite of passage. Now in his early thirties, he has set aside no less than a decade to record a complete Beethoven cycle. By the time he is done, he will be in his full maturity – probably ready to start them all over again.
The first disc in the series has recently been released and Biss’s recital on Tuesday opened and closed with Beethoven sonatas. The youthful fire of the C Minor Sonata, Op.10 No.1, was a good place for him to start, plunging in headlong but with enough control to keep a grip on the rhythms. The chances are that Biss will find plenty of “con brio” (with fire) throughout, as he feels closest to Beethoven the fighter, throwing his whole body into the music’s jabbing sforzando punches. In the Op.81a Sonata, “Les adieux”, Biss was more at home with the energy of departure than the reflections of absence, warm though his emotional colours in slower music are.
In between the Beethoven sonatas came a pair of works each by Janáček and Chopin. The deep, solid sound that worked well in Beethoven lacks aristocratic refinement for Chopin – either Biss or his piano was all middle textures, with no sparkle at the top. The Polonaise-Fantaisie in A Flat lacked the flair that allows decorative ideas to take flight, as if they have been cut from their moorings and are spontaneously finding a life of their own.
The two Janáček works – In the Mists and the Piano Sonata “1.X.1905” – were more interesting. Again, Biss was serious here, fighting his way rather doggedly through to the heart of the music with perseverance where a more natural Janáček pianist might simply light upon those unique colours and accents that lend the music life. But a deep, solid warmth gave his Janáček a distinctive character – a distant cousin to Beethoven, perhaps?