“To be asked not to applaud is one of the rarer requests made of an audience at the start of a concert …” So opens Geoffrey Norris’s note accompanying this release. Jonathan Biss is then quoted as follows: “… because Schubert’s C major Sonata begins in a mysterious, otherworldly way, applause is not necessarily the best way in to that world.” The programme for Biss’s Wigmore Hall recital of May of last year was clearly the result of careful planning. But does it work? And how much does it matter?
The recital opens with a tiny piece by Kurtág, taken from a collection entitled Játékok
, Hungarian for “Games”, a collection of miniatures which Kurtág began to compose in the early 1970s and which now numbers several volumes. The full title of the first piece is Birthday elegy for Judit – for the second finger of her left hand
. It is made up of single notes, with the interval of a fifth featuring strongly, all held down with the sustaining pedal. It shouldn’t work – there aren’t enough notes in it for one thing – but it creates a powerful spell, quite immobile. Out of this, following a short silence, emerge the opening notes of Schubert’s unfinished C major Sonata, now known as the Reliquie
. It is not known why Schubert set this work aside, but the two completed movements amount to some twenty-five minutes of music, so it would certainly have been on a large-scale. The music is very lyrical, its themes seemingly growing one from the other. It feels more like a fragment than does the “Unfinished” Symphony.
Biss’s performance of the Reliquie
is followed by applause, and the D.959 Sonata follows that. The influence of Beethoven can be heard at the outset, but the more lyrical second theme is more Schubertian in style. The second movement is a kind of barcarolle, with a dramatic, even violent middle section which Biss describes as “… the most powerful musical expression of a nightmare ever composed.” This is a big claim. Beethoven can be heard again in the scherzo, but the finale is pure Schubert. The main theme might have been taken from one of the composer’s songs, but it was, in fact, borrowed from one of his own earlier sonatas. In any event, this theme hardly seems imposing enough to carry the weight of the finale of a large-scale sonata, and indeed the work as a whole, glorious though it is, doesn’t quite make a convincing structural or psychological whole. Biss’s programme thus features an unfinished work and another less cogent than it might be. The A major Sonata is followed by warm applause, and then, after the briefest of announcements, he plays the second Kurtág piece, a simple melody harmonised with clashing semitones, even more enigmatic and barely longer than the first.
The Schubert performances will certainly have satisfied the Wigmore Hall audience. The close of the first movement of the A major Sonata is particularly sensitive and affecting and the way in which Biss differentiates between the two thematic groups of this same movement is masterly. There are a few interpretative decisions, though, which with repeated listening might begin to sound like mannerisms. He plays the first two movements of D.959 almost without a pause, for example, arguing in the booklet that the music asks for it, and the way in which he takes up the music again after the whole-bar silences on the final page of the same sonata sound self-conscious and might begin to irritate with time.
The disc will appeal to admirers of the pianist as it will to those who haven’t encountered him yet. It will also serve as an excellent souvenir for those who were present in the hall. I wonder about the programming, though. The two Kurtág pieces are really too short to make any impact in such company, the second in particular, apparently played as an encore, seems inconsequential in context to the point of doing the composer a disservice. The two Schubert performances are fine ones, but the lyrical aspects take precedence; dramatic contrast is in short supply, and this is perhaps why I feel vaguely unsatisfied. I have admired for many years Martino Tirimo’s EMI recordings of all the sonatas, and his performance of each of these seems to tell the whole story in a way Biss’s does not. There are many other, wonderfully satisfying performances of both works from the likes of Murray Perahia, Mitsuko Uchida or Leif Ove Andsnes. But that’s not really the point in a live recital recording.
Geoffrey Norris contributes an interesting booklet article which is, in effect, the report of an interview with the pianist in which he expounds his views on Schubert, Kurtág and why he decided to programme them together. The recording places the listener very close to the performer, with little real sense of the hall, and, regrettably – though others seem to be less bothered by this kind of thing than I am – quite a few noises from the pianist, breathing, sighing and so on, particularly obvious in D. 840.