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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas Vol. 1
Piano Sonata No 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No 1 (?1795/7) [16:51]
Piano Sonata No 11 in B flat, Op. 22 (1800) [23:39]
Piano Sonata No 12 in A flat, Op. 26, Funeral March (1800/01) [17:46]
Piano Sonata No 26 in E flat, Op 81a, Les Adieux (1809/10) [15:37]
Jonathan Biss (piano)
rec. 11-13 May, 2011, Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York
ONYX 4082 [74:08]

Reviewing the second volume in Jonathan Biss’s Beethoven sonata cycle made me keen to seek out its predecessor. That was set down twelve months before Volume Two in the same venue.
 
For this first foray into the sonatas Biss chose three early sonatas and a later one. Op. 10/1 was the composer’s significant C minor composition, Biss tells us in his notes. The first of the three movements contains some abrupt material and some that is more graceful but, as so often with Beethoven, the strongest impression that the listener is left with is that of sheer energy. Jonathan Biss brings strength and definition to the more forceful music but elsewhere he displays a fine legato. The slow movement opens with music of poised simplicity, which is very well played here. Biss seems to me to penetrate the depths of this movement and I also like the improvisatory feel he’s able to impart without ever sacrificing discipline. This is a lovely reading. The finale is one of Beethoven’s tearaway movements with abrupt gestures and changes of trajectory cropping up all over the place. Biss gives it a dazzling performance.
 
Op. 22 was, apparently one of the composer’s own favourites among his works. Jonathan Biss, noting that by now Beethoven had written over a third of his piano sonatas, comments that the work “feels very much like a summation”; he feels Beethoven is tending to look backwards in this score. The music in the first movement is keen-edged, clear and energetic and so is Biss’s playing of it. I like his elegance in the second movement. He’s very persuasive in the Menuetto, which has a relaxed main subject but also includes many characteristically quirky, energetic passages, especially in the trio. The finale is a predominantly genial and relaxed rondo, though it’s not without more forceful episodes. Biss gives a winning performance of it.
 
He has some interesting things to say about Op. 26, which he describes as a “lovely and slightly peculiar masterpiece.” He says of this sonata that “after the brilliance and bluster of the early sonatas, its quiet confidence and utter absence of any attempt to ingratiate may be its most striking features.” That point about “quiet confidence” is highly relevant to the third movement, I think - and, perhaps one should add, to Biss’s treatment of it. It is marked Maestoso andante, marcia funèbre sulla morte d’un eroe. One might have expected Beethoven to produce a grand, rhetorical mourning statement here but this music is not at quite the same emotional temperature as the funeral march in the ‘Eroica’ was to be. To be sure the music, which was played at Beethoven’s funeral, is grand but the rhetoric is kept firmly in check. Jonathan Biss brigs out the power of the music but, wisely, he doesn’t wear his heart too prominently on his sleeve in doing so: this is patrician, controlled mourning. Key to his performance, I think, is the intelligent pacing; it’s solemn but not too slow; one could march to this pace.
 
Prior to the funeral march Beethoven begins the sonata – unprecedentedly – with a theme and variations movement, which is a refreshing innovation. The theme is simple and malleable and Beethoven’s variations, though modest in scale, are excellent. Biss does this movement extremely well, characterising each variation nicely. He’s deft in the brief scherzo and displays marvellous articulation in the equally brief quicksilver finale.
 
The programme opened with a three-movement sonata and ends with another one in the shape of Op. 81a. This is, by some distance, the best-known sonata on this disc and Biss does it very well. I particularly liked the suspense he generates in the slow introduction to the first movement, after which he’s very lively in the main allegro. In the slow movement he captures the regretful quality in the music. The joyful finale explodes out of the slow movement and in this high-spirited movement Biss offers exuberant playing.
 
This is a disc of exceptional quality, confirming the impression I got from the other disc in this series that Jonathan Biss is a very fine Beethoven player. The recording itself is very good indeed: the piano sound is very well reported throughout the instrument’s compass. The pianist himself has written the booklet note and this is lively and informative.
 
I see from the booklet that Biss plans to take nine discs and nine years to complete his Beethoven cycle. That means that we shan’t hear the final instalment until about 2020. That’s a long time but I think Biss is wise to take his time over his exploration of these masterpieces. On the evidence of these first two issues his journey through the Beethoven sonatas is going to be a stimulating and rewarding one which I look forward to following.
 
John Quinn
 
Click here to read an interview with Jonathan Biss by Aart van der Wal for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard.

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