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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fantasy in G minor, Op. 77 (1809)
Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor "Appassionata", Op. 57 (1804)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6 (1837, rev. 1850)
Jonathan Biss, piano
Recorded Potton Hall, Suffolk, March/April 2003
EMI CLASSICS DEBUT 7243 5 85894 2 9 [65:58]

This CD is part of EMI’s Debut series bringing us artists "on the brink of major international careers". One could be skeptical of the "on the brink" classification, but there is no denying the advantages to the record-buying public. This disc costs less than a Naxos CD and gives us the opportunity to hear masterful music performed by young adult artists who might one day attain stardom.

At the young age of twenty-three, Mr. Biss has quite a list of credentials to his credit. He studied under Leon Fleisher at the Curtis Institute of Music and has performed with leading orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic, and the Staatskapelle Berlin. In addition, Biss has won the Gilmore Young Artist Award, the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award, and received an Avery Fisher Career Grant. This EMI disc represents his recording debut, and certainly presents a worthy set of performances.

As with many young pianists, Biss is technically adept and offers his most compelling interpretations in fast, powerful, and confident music. What he needs to concentrate on in the future is refining his sense of nuance, personality, and the inevitability of the musical progression of a work.

Here is my synopsis of the Biss performances:

Davidsbündlertänze – With 18 movements expressing a myriad of styles and emotions, this is a work that well covers the strengths and weaknesses that Biss brings to the recording studio. He gives us an excellent picture of the Schumann alter-ego Florestan who is the man of immediate, impetuous, and unrelenting action. Biss even injects some wild abandon into Florestan, and that is always an effective stroke. The exuberant and confident movements such as the 3rd and 8th Movements show Biss exhibiting much gusto and a delightfully playful quality. He is also exceptional in the powerful and dramatic movements, particularly the 4th and 6th Movements.

Schumann’s other alter-ego, Eusebius, does not receive as compelling a portrayal. Eusebius represents enlightenment, and Schumann adds illumination to the personality through incisive inflections from the upper-voice melody lines. Unfortunately, the Biss inflections are sometimes extremely weak as in the 2nd and 5th Movements. The result is music without the capacity to pierce one’s heart.

Another concern I have is how Biss tends to treat the Schumann interludes where Florestan and Eusebius are in conversation. Surprisingly, Biss does not invest Florestan with sufficient strength and vigor, a failing most prevalent in the 10th and 13th movements.

"Appassionata" Sonata – Biss identifies well with the power, tension, and sudden changes in tempo and dynamics of the outer movements. However, his Andante con moto lacks stature, and the variations sound contrived.

Fantasy in G minor – Bliss plays this piece in a highly lyrical and rather polite manner. The approach has its appeal, but Bliss does not convey the more primitive elements in the music.

Overall, the Biss performances are in the ‘hit or miss’ category. It will be interesting to see if additional experience and insight puts Biss among the front-rank of professional pianists. In the meantime, there is much to enjoy in this new disc, and I give it a mild recommendation. I have no qualms concerning the sound quality. It has ample depth, richness, and detail.

Don Satz



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