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Jonathan Biss - “Really great music is absolute”: An Interview with Aart van der Wal (AvdW)


His biography does not leave any doubt about his great talents and flourishing international career: the American pianist Jonathan Biss has clearly established himself through his orchestral and recital performances in North America, Asia and Europe, and through his recordings for EMI Classics.

His first recording on contract, of Schumann's Fantasia, Arabesque and Kreisleriana, was awarded the Diapason d'Or de l'Année, in the 'Jeune Talent' category in November 2007, and his second recording of Beethoven sonatas, released in autumn 2007, has also been widely praised and received the Edison Award for Best Solo Recital Recording in June 2008.

Biss has worked with many distinguished conductors such as Alsop, Barenboim, Conlon, Davis, Dohnanyi, Dutoit, Levine, Maazel, Marriner, Morlot, Norrington, Robertson, Slatkin, Tilson-Thomas, Zehetmair, Zinman and Zukerman. He appears regularly with major US orchestras including the Boston SO, Cincinnati SO, Chicago SO, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Melbourne SO, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, National SO, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Pittsburgh SO and San Francisco SO.

In Europe, he has performed with the BBC SO, BBC PO, Gulbenkian Orchestra, Helsinki PO, Israel PO, Mahler CO, Munich Philharmonic, Netherlands PO, Rotterdam PO, Stockholm PO, Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, the Symphony Orchestra of WDR Cologne and the Staatskapelle Berlin. In the past season, he appeared with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Bamberg Symphony, Swedish CO, Danish National SO and with the Camerata Salzburg, both in the orchestra's Abonnement series and in Vienna and Graz.

Recital and chamber music continue to play a vital part in Biss' artistic life and he is a regular guest in many of the great series in the USA including, New York, Philadelphia, Berkeley, Chicago and now in the major cities and festivals in Europe - Salzburg and Lucerne Festivals, Salzburg Mozartwoche, Schleswig-Holstein, Beethovenfest, Bonn, La Roque D'Antheron and the Verbier Festival. He has opened the Master Piano Series in the Concertgebouw (a return visit to the Concertgebouw), and he gave a highly successful solo recital in the International Piano Series in London where he returned in the summer of 2008 for a duo recital with Richard Goode. He also gave recitals in the Schwetzingen Festival and at London's Wigmore Hall and in the summer of 2008, gave a series of recitals as a trio with Midori and Johannes Moser.

Jonathan Biss represents the third generation in a family of professional musicians that includes his grandmother Raya Garbousova (for whom Samuel Barber composed his Cello Concerto), as well as his parents, violinist Miriam Fried and violist/violinist Paul Biss.

He has been recognised with numerous awards, including the 2002 Gilmore Young Artist Award, Lincoln Center's Martin E. Segal Award, an Avery Fisher Career Grant, the Andrew Wolf Memorial Chamber Music Award, and the 2003 Borletti-Buitoni Trust. He was the first American chosen to participate in the BBC's New Generation Artist programme, and in 2005 he received the Leonard Bernstein Award presented to him at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival in Germany.

Those low Gs...

Jonathan Biss was in Rotterdam to play Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the Rotterdam Philharmonic conducted by Ludovic Morlot. I met him at the concert hall’s Sweelinck room, where he had just finished practicing on the Steinway grand. He pointed to the score with great admiration, me wondering whether it was the 1808 version of the Concerto? To put the record straight, no autograph score of the work has survived and the best source for the outer movements we have is the manuscript score with corrections and annotations in different colours. Usually Beethoven only wrote the autograph score, from which a fair copy was made by the copyist. After its completion Beethoven would go over it, correct errors, add markings and send it to his publisher to use it for the printing the first edition. In some cases the differences between this clean copy and the original autograph are striking, whereas in most cases it may remain doubtful whether the clean copy depicts the concluding stage in the composition process, or the original autograph score.

However, what is striking about that clean copy of the Fourth Piano Concerto are, as the musicologist Barry Cooper has pointed out, the numerous sketch-like annotations in Beethoven’s hand, written on or near the staves allocated to the piano part. No less remarkable is the fact that the second movement is contained in a much later manuscript which is clearly not connected to the other two movements of the Concerto. It was most likely added to make the work complete, i.e. to give it its three traditional movements. Even if the 1808 version comes closer to or frankly is Beethoven’s final conception of the work, it is not played very often. The Fourth Piano Concerto would be Beethoven's last one he played in public. His impaired hearing left him no other choice.

“I think that in these textual cases you cannot take what I would call a blanket decision. You have to approach each textual decision on basis of the musical text, its musical setting. Of course, I have been through all of this. One of the things here is that it is far from clear whether those marks and annotations in different colours are all by Beethoven. But I show what I have done.” [Biss takes up his score and plays the heavy G major chords in bar 253. The great Steinway sound instantly fills up the room. I notice that his left hand strikes low Gs, which is not in my score]. “You see, I play here with the orchestra, and particularly with the low Gs of celli and basses. As Cooper has pointed out, in this bar 253 most editions show a crotchet rest for the first beat, instead of those Gs.”

I noted that something similarly occurs in the Finale’s bar 402, where in current editions a quaver rest creates the wrong diminished triad in second inversion, instead of the dominant seventh based on G.

“My decision to play those Gs was based on Barry Cooper’s study, and particularly on what he wrote about the markings of solo and tutti.”

The age of multimedia

Last week Jonathan Biss, with James Egelhofer, Matthew Guerrieri and Michael Kondziolkaone,  was guest panellist on Amanda Ameer’s blog at The main item was the 21st century’s phenomenon of artists distinguishing themselves in ways not directly connected to their art. Was this good or bad, relevant or irrelevant to the art itself, was it  contributing to the concert experience or distracting from it?

“In the 21st century most of our visual stimuli and most of the things we are exposed to are more spectacular and nosier than classical music by its nature is. It is already quite difficult to get an audience in the hall and to ask them to focus, to listen to classical music. I am always concerned, even if I obviously understand the importance of publicity, that there is more focus on the personality of the artist, which makes it more difficult for the audience to come to the concert hall and lose themselves completely in what they are listening to. It is very important to me that my audience is given every chance possible to understand and to appreciate the music I am playing. To me this is the core of it. And why not talking about certain pieces, discussing them in public, as I did when exploring two Schubert Sonatas at Wigmore Hall in London? Actually, I tried to explain these great works in a different way (click here for the audio track).”

I felt he had a point indeed. Nowadays lots of young people get easily distracted by all kinds of stimuli, including dreadful noise. This is the age of multimedia, of internet, of gaming. But reading a book needs a different kind of awareness, where classical music should focus the mind. Music could ‘teach’ the present generation to achieve the kind of singularity of mind that creates the ultimate listening experience, without being distracted by something else. That could make better people who have the ability to enjoy a variety of spiritual encounters with the arts, which in turn contribute to better organising their daily lives, don’t you think?

“Absolutely. I think all that is incredibly valuable. The focus should not be the artist but the music. I have the fear that when the focus is no longer the music, I am doing both the audience and the music a disservice. But I think that nowadays it is difficult for people´s minds to really focus on something. When I play music I am in constant dialogue with history. It is not just what is happening at that very moment. For the appreciation of this one needs time, space. At least the young generation indeed finds it difficult to focus on something without constantly wondering what is here and what is there. It is the inadequacy to take the energy to one place only. I definitely agree with you that developing the ability to ponder enriches a person. Not just in the ability to hear music, but to become a fuller or more empathetic person in the process.”

We see that superficial tendency to worry about the future of classical music. It is even fashionable to predict that one day it will disappear, as if it has never existed The idea that classical music is dull and mainly a source of pleasure for the elderly!

“Yes, but not in the sense that it will disappear. Let’s face it, we always have had part of the audience already in their fifties and beyond. There is really nothing new here. It is very important to remember that a contemporary composer of Mozart – I read it in an article, but I can’t recall his name now – wrote that he had visited Vienna in let’s say 1785 and attended one of Mozart’s concerts. He talked about how spectacular it was, that the music was unbelievable, that the concert was an enormous popular success and that were at least…75 people there. So I think it is important to remember that this was always something for a few people, not for everybody. Just to be very clear, I think that classical music needs to be available for each and everybody, for people of all ages. Classical music is an inseparable part of the worldwide community and it should never get segregated. However, the idea that the audience may not be the biggest is okay with me.”

Still, I think that something is definitely wrong with our consumption of classical music. Without now calling in the fighters for an elite art model I believe that we should not listen to Mahler’s Ninth or a Beethoven Piano Concerto when jogging or shaving. Or that we are faced with that constant ebb and flow of undefined sound in drug stores, shopping malls, at the dentist and the like for the sake of comforting our souls or to stimulate us in doing something we did not even thought about before. By all these monstrosities the chances are that the inner value of classical music, or any good music for that matter, is gradually evaporating. At the end over - consumption creates a very big black hole.

“You are exactly right. The problem is that classical music and what it means and the way one needs to listen to it is getting more and more anachronistic. It has less and less to do with the way we live our lives. That is my concern and that is why I try to find ways to preserve this culture of listening and appreciating it in a world that is not really designed for it.”

The next question was whether it would help to ‘sandwich’ modern or contemporary pieces between the ‘good oldies’. And the more so where I often see more young than older people attending concerts filled with contemporary or even experimental music.

“For me, whenever I play a recital program, with very rare exceptions, for instance when I play singe all-Beethoven recitals, there is almost always contemporary music in my programs. There is another aspect to that, which is incredibly important to me: I see classical music as a continuum.”

Not a museum!

“Not a museum! I think that the composers who are writing today I am most interesting in are the ones that somehow even though their voices are original and their style is modern, have some kind of a sense of the past inside their music. For example, I now play frequently pieces by György Kurtag.”

It comes from somewhere, unquestionable. There is always that historical connection, the ties from the past. No composer can do without that. His work does not come out of the blue, from nothing.

“Exactly, it does not. Even if his style is completely his, it comes from somewhere.”

There are those myriad lines which do not individually reveal the roots of that historical process but which are collectively the contemporary composer’s partners when drafting his music. Schoenberg designed the twelve tone system from purely old material. There has always been that misunderstanding that Schoenberg resented traditional musical expression, especially after he had written Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), one of the last remnants of post romantic poetry. But frankly, he never did. He even orchestrated Brahms's Piano Quartet in G minor.  

“If you read what Schoenberg wrote about it! He said that the need to invent the system was based on hundreds of years of music. That is the most important thing to me, as it says it all.”

You could also say that basically he remained loyal to the old and solid material that had been tried at length by all those composers before him. It was this material that he mathematically reclassified, regrouped in a quite new, astonishing way. Factually it was the atonal resurrection of the tonal system. The mathematical aspect of it is fascinating because here we find the connection to Bach.

“He made that other wonderful remark, which is very important to keep in mind when you listen to his music. He said that there were plenty of good pieces left to be written in C major… He did not think the tonal system was played out. There has indeed been that misconception that he felt that he had to create a new system because the old one was dead. But that is not actually what his perception was.”

A stroke of genius

Talking about perception! When Beethoven’s First Symphony was premiered in Vienna on April 2nd, 1800, the audience must have been shocked by the dissonant chord that started the work. And what to say of the Eroica! There is that famous story of Beethoven’s scholar Ferdinand Ries who was misguided by the ‘wrong’ horn entry halfway through the first movement. Beethoven lectured him for pronouncing that the horn player was on the wrong track. Overall, quite daring dissonances (another example are those in the Menuet of Mozart’s Symphony in G minor, K 550) are hardly noticed today. Our ear has somehow adjusted. Two centuries ago the perception of sound must have been quite different.

“ It is one of the great challenges to play his music as if it was created yesterday. Take the C minor Concerto as an example. It is not exactly a dissonant, but when the slow movement begins, you have all of a sudden in the middle of C minor E major! It should sound so shocking, but for an audience that have heard everything… You can make it happen again, but it needs more effort, more colouring and shading by the soloist to get it off.” 

There is another stroke of genius, when at the end of the Adagio of the Emperor Concerto the five sharps make their transition to the three flats! These last four bars, where we get that greatest of all transitions, first from B to B flat, and then to E flat, firmly reaching, ‘attaca’, the Rondo theme A stroke of genius, but who still hears that nowadays?

“You need to work much, much harder to find something in the colour of the sound that is so striking. It is all based on some kind of belief that it can be possible. Part of the public maybe not understand or appreciate that it is really something shocking, but somehow the feeling is that at least something happens here.”

There is that famous passage from Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament, written in 1802, which you quote on your website: »What a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life - only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce…« You wrote on your blog that this explains, far better than you ever could, why playing Beethoven - doing him justice, or at least coming as close as you can - feels like a matter of life-or-death. And that your Beethoven recordings are more or less an attempt in a series which you hope will last a lifetime, to come to terms with the most life-affirming, yet unfathomable music you know that exists. Beethoven suffered from impaired hearing, it got worse and worse, but finally he firmly decided not to kill himself but to live for his art. He knew it would not be a happy life facing him, but his art made it all worthwhile. Loss of hearing is definitely the worst for any composer or musician, and imagine! Beethoven was not only a composer but also a musician who played his own music (the Fourth Concert was the last one he played in public). And he lost more than that, he also lost substantial part of his social environment. There may be no resemblance between Beethoven’s darkest thoughts at that time and yours today, but his struggle means something special to you.

“I cannot even begin to imagine what my life would be without music. It is impossible for me to think about that. Of course, it could happen that I am no longer able to play and probably I would find another way to live, but music is so central in the way I express myself that I really would not know. I realise that I am very lucky. I cannot imagine what my life would be without music and therefore I wish that as many people as possible have it.”


There are also many people at the music scene either already having lost their job or they expect to lose it. The big crisis, you know. For example, we hear those stories about orchestras on the brink of bankruptcy, like the Philadelphia Orchestra right now.

“There are a lot of different problems coming together at this moment. Economic problems that are crippling, with unemployment etc. But then there is the way in which orchestras in the States are run. There have not been any significant adjustments, there seems to be no one really willing to throw this or that out, try a completely different way for a change. But maybe the silver line of this economic crisis might be that people really try something different, to think about ways to present music in a different way.”

Could you make a distinction between performing here, in The Netherlands, and in for instance Europe as a whole?

“The Netherlands is not typically Europe. Looking at your country from the outside I would say it is rather unbelievable in terms of the number of people who go to concerts here. When I was in Amsterdam last time someone told me that the Concertgebouw sells more tickets annually than there are people in Amsterdam.”

That is partly because of the tourists.

“Yes, but it is phenomenal nonetheless.  And it is not because the Concertgebouw is the national concert hall. Almost every city in Holland seems to have a concert hall! It is quite amazing, as there are places in Europe, many German and British cities, where music is an inseparable part of daily life. But there are also places in the United States which are full of musical life. Take St. Paul in Minnesota for example, with its recital series and 2,000 subscribers, even if there are also many places where there is virtually nothing. I try not to generalise by country, I think that every place has a different relationship with music. It very often has to do with background, with education, where it has been good and where it has not. Look at Venezuela and Finland, where the interest in classical music, in any good music is really accelerating.”

It is exciting that a new generation is getting more and more attached to good music, wherever in the world. I believe that young people cross that border more easily when they hear classical music performed by young musicians of their own generation. We have to be honest and appreciate that even physical attraction can be a contributing feature here. Although in that sense there is nothing new. Think of all those women getting mad about Liszt’s appearance as a pianist! They adored him, they almost kissed his feet!

“Adoration goes back hundreds of years. Yes, this is normal, as it is very exciting. That it might occur to the present generation that classical music is theirs as well. It is not really new, it has always been that way.”

Kurtág responds to Mozart

Could you tell me a little bit about how you prepare your recital programmes?

“It is clear that I only play pieces I love. I do not want to waste anybody’s time. The main thing I am interested in when putting a program together is to achieve an interesting mix, i.e. that each piece sounds different because of what came before and what came after it. Somehow, the greatest composers are in some sort of conversation with one another. In October, which was my most recent recital period, I played a program with Mendelssohn, Kurtág and Mozart in the first part. In cannot explain how, but to me this was so interesting. Not only because Kurtág was responding to Mozart, but also the opposite: that Mozart answers Kurtág as well. It is this dialogue across the centuries, which I am mostly interested in. Combinations like these force your hearing to adjust.”

“In terms of preparation I only have one strict rule: I never play a piece immediately after learning. I always learn it, put it away and then come back to it. You learn more through the time when you are away from it.”

Do you get new ideas later on?

“For sure. Even pieces I have played so many times can give me new insights, like a stroke of light. An example is Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major, K 467, which I have played so many times and even recorded it. Actually, I played it more than any other piece, but still there were things, like last week, that had not occurred to me before. That is one of the virtues of really great music.”

When you get more into it, you get more genius out of it?

“Definitely. It might also be a matter of gaining maturity. To rule out excesses, not to glance at a piece just from the outside and not to think how to please other people. The more you shed this all off the better it works out for you and the audience.”

You sound like Beethoven! Not pleasing people, adopting his own standards, for instance in his last five piano sonatas and his last five string quartets.,, But you need to communicate!

“Yes, very much so, although that is different from worrying about what the audience may think. There are two different things. First of all, you have to feel the audience, that they are reacting to what you are doing on the rostrum. Then, you need to have the courage to play in the way you feel you have to play no matter how the response is going to be. This is all about bringing your own personality into the performance. It is also about keeping the mind and the ears as open as possible so that you allow your hearing to evolve. It is always predominantly about hearing.”

Can your ‘hear’ the score when reading it?

“To a great extend I can. Playing is different, of course. Score reading can unquestionably add to the experience, even if the gratification comes from playing, which is the greater enthrallment. Music is not something you are ever done with, no matter where what. When I practice four hours there are still twenty hours left in which the music continues, apart from sleeping, jetlag and things like that. However, the more experience you get the better you can adapt and find ways to concentrate, to leave space for other things.”

You can settle your own schedule, your own programming?

“In fact much better than before, although it is also a matter of dialogue between the parties concerned. But yes, I dare to say no to some proposals because not only do I need time to live, but also from that the program, i.e. the music must appeal to me. I must say that, although often difficult, it is getting easier to plan intelligently.”  

You belong to the very top. I am not saying you should feel the luxury of that, or that you should have a certain pride in what you have accomplished, but there is undeniably that reward from audiences and critics that must be appealing to you.

“There is something wonderful in it, obviously. However, the main thing is that I love music and that I feel passionate about it. Having this professional success means that other people share my kind of passion for music in some way. That is exciting, to go on stage and to play in the way that is meaningful to me and that this is somehow speaking to people. Fantastic!”


You wrote that your teacher Leon Fleisher meant a lot to you, even in a sense that you looked underneath the piano to find out where his gorgeous sounds came from. He was one of your most important coaches, if not the imperative one. When I listen to a CBS recording from the sixties, with Fleisher playing the Beethoven Concertos with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell, there is hardly anything in his performance that reminds me of Jonathan Biss! Only occasionally I felt that you adopted some of his phrasing, but his overall concept is quite different from yours.

“Eventually, and I use the word at the risk of sounding pretentious, as an artist, you take each and everything you have learned from your incredible teachers and mentors – and I was very lucky in that - Fleisher above all. When uou have somehow absorbed and internalised it you then let it go and must have the courage to find and go your own way, to make your own mistakes.”

“Every great artist, and Fleisher definitely is one, has his own essence and you cannot take that from him and use it for your own sake. That would positively kill your own individuality as a musician. Then, it would not make you an artist but some sort of a clone. Instead, finding your own finger print would bring you closer to yourself.” 

Apart from all the attractions offered by the youngest generation of musicians, many of them play like almost anybody. They hardly offer something that would mark them a real musical personality.

“When we talk about this music, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert for example. Each new generation is one generation further away from all that. It becomes more and more difficult for us to feel that we are connected to it. It is more difficult now for people to play this old music as if it is a part of them. I think that to have an individual relationship with great music you first need to feel connected and maybe that is the great challenge for performing music in the 21st century. Just by nature we have drifted farther and farther away.”

There can be technically flawless play, but where one feels the soul is missing?

“It is getting more and more difficult to find that musical culture of the past because we live in a totally different age. Just imagine for a few seconds what Beethoven would think of the world we live in! What connection would he find in there?”

I agree that we cannot make that connection with the nineteenth century, which does not necessarily mean that we are hopelessly disconnected from it. I myself feel that I come closer to his life and his times when I read his letters and his conversation books. Because then, without sounding pompous, I feel I get the chance to get into his psyche, his inner being. This is quite different from some kind of biographical characterisation. Still, it is his music that prevails, no matter what.

“Somehow, his conversation books are much more real, but finally, yes, there is no question that we would not read his letters and so on when there was not his music to perform this function.” 

Could you enjoy Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony without engaging yourself with the Viennese Woods? Could you play Beethoven without knowing anything about his life, his circumstances?

“I certainly think so. Really great music is absolute in that sense. There are images that might enhance it in some way and it could help when you have a better understanding of the surroundings in which a piece was written, but it is not essential. It is something around that music, but it is not the music itself. I believe that very firmly.”

“I have learned maybe something about Schubert from walking in Vienna, but really, great music is property of the world. Johann Strauss, a very good composer, but not a great one, was Viennese. Schubert was a citizen of the world. There are Viennese aspects to his music but that is not in the end the most interesting part of it, or that made him unique. The real meaning of this is very important because we live in a world which is very large and hopefully music will not be excluded to people who do not have this geographical connection. Great music is a universal phenomenon and one of our greatest treasuries at the same time.”  

Aart van der Wal © 2010

This interview also appears in

For a Jonathan Biss discography: click here

The Jonathan Biss web site is

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