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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat, Op. 7 (1796-97) [27:53]
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 No 2, Moonlight (1801) [14:28]
Fantasy in G minor, Op. 77 (1809) [9:06]
Piano Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp, Op 78 (1809) [9:42]
Jonathan Biss (piano)
rec. 23-25 May 2012, Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York
ONYX4094 [70:43]

This is Volume Two in the projected cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas by the young American pianist, Jonathan Biss (b. 1980). The first volume included sonatas numbers 5, 11, 12 and 26 (see review).
The programme has been discerningly chosen. It includes one of the best-known of all Beethoven’s sonatas, the so-called Moonlight. In his lively booklet note Jonathan Biss describes the famous first movement as “eerily still but absolutely not peaceful.” His delivery of the music is by no means shorn of poetry but it’s also controlled and objective and I like the way he keeps the music moving forward with purpose. Does Biss see the short second movement as an interlude, I wonder? It sounds almost nonchalant here, though I’m absolutely certain that the reading is as well-considered as anything else on the programme; I like Biss’s way with this little movement, not least because it makes the finale all the more effective. The finale bursts out of the traps in a torrent of notes. Biss describes it as “an uninhibited exhibition of everything that is reined in previously.” The music needs to be projected with great energy and vitality to make its proper effect and Biss is just the man for the job. Here we see Beethoven the stormy petrel.
The Op. 78 sonata is an odd work, not least because it consists of just two movements, one much longer than the other. So its structure is unusual and it plays for less than 10 minutes. Was the Op 77 Fantasy intended as a companion piece? That’s uncertain but it’s intelligent programming by Biss to include both works. Biss describes the opening movement of Op. 78 as “mellifluous and songlike” and that, in the main, is how he plays it. That description doesn’t mean that the music is soft-centred, however, and where a more robust approach is warranted Biss responds appropriately. I like Biss’s thought that in the short second movement Beethoven’s humour is of the tongue-sticking-out variety. The music is explosively energetic and the humour is on the broad side; had Beethoven been twenty years younger when he wrote it we might describe this movement as precocious. Biss’s pianism is effervescent and dazzling.
The G minor Fantasy is a strange composition. In its opening minutes several thematic ideas are tossed around and then, it seems, quickly cast aside. It seems a freewheeling piece and these opening pages contain some turbulent passages. Then, almost out of nowhere (at 4:55) Beethoven reveals a theme that is fairly unremarkable – by his standards – and proceeds to devote the rest of the Fantasy to variations on that theme. The abrupt ending to the work is yet another surprise. It’s not immediately obvious, at least to me, how Opp. 77 and 78 might be complementary pieces but I found Jonathan Biss’s account of the Fantasy was compelling.
The earliest piece here is the Op. 7 sonata. As Jonathan Biss points out, this is the longest of all Beethoven’s sonatas with the exception of the Hammerklavier. He writes about it with great enthusiasm and that enthusiasm is carried over into his playing. From the very start of the first movement Beethoven displays energy and great confidence in his writing – as does Biss in his playing. There’s tremendous rhythmic vitality on display here. There are some lyrical stretches, which Biss shapes and shades most effectively, but for the most part the performance is characterised by urgency and rightly so. The gravely expressive Largo is described by Biss as “one of Beethoven’s earliest (and already breathtaking) surveys of the cosmos.” His playing is very fine here, with frequent examples of an exquisite touch, and he confirms here that he’s as well suited to the philosophical side of Beethoven as he is to the composer’s more energetic vein. In the rondo finale Biss really catches the ‘giocoso’ element, finding lots of variety along the way. He’s fiery in the “fist-shaking” central episode and eventually brings the sonata to a very satisfying conclusion.
This is a very impressive disc. Jonathan Biss is a fine, technically adept and evidently thoughtful Beethoven pianist. I enjoyed these well-recorded performances very much. Future volumes in this cycle are eagerly awaited.
John Quinn
Click here to read an interview with Jonathan Biss by Aart van der Wal for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard.