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#430345 - 11/18/06 11:09 PM You should have heard the silence
pianojerome Offline
9000 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/01/05
Posts: 9868
at the end of the Schumann Fantasy. Jonathan Biss sat there without moving, his hands still on the keyboard, his head bent forward and down, and Hill Auditorium was completely silent. For at least 10 seconds.

Those 10 seconds were amazing -- even better than if the audience had immediately applauded after the last note, as they did in fact after the *1st movement* of a Mozart Sonata (which was well deserved).

Hm, Jonathan Biss, where do I begin.

Well, first the program:

Beethoven -- Sonata No. 27 in E Minor, Op. 90
Schoenberg -- Six Little Pieces, Op. 19
Mozart -- Sonata in F Major, K. 533/K. 494 in F Major


Schumann -- Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17

(The Mozart has two K. numbers because the 3rd movement was originally a rondo all by itself, but Mozart didn't know quite what to do with it, aside from publish it alone; 2 years later, he composed an allegro movement and an andante movement but didn't know what to do with those either, so he just put the two together with a revised version of the old rondo to make a whole sonata.)

OK, Biss.

He's very tall and lanky. He walked very casually to the piano, his face protruding slightly ahead of his body, and took a very deep bow: first, he smiled; then, he clasped his hands together by his waist; then, he bent almost 90° and held it for a second or two --- sort of a formal bow, and he did it the same way every time.

From the beginning of the Beethoven (which I was happy to hear, because I played it last year) one characteristic jumped out at me very clearly: Jonathan Biss is a human being. He plays the music so personally, and so individually, with big rubatos and deccelerendos, and it's amazing how much he could alter the tone of the piano. Of course, the tone itself didn't change, but I could feel at times the sound being tugged from the piano; at other times, I could feel the sound bouncing off the piano; at times, I could feel the piano singing. His playing was not radical, nor was it conventional. It was quite simply natural. I heard Beethoven, and I heard Mozart, but above all, I heard Jonathan Biss - and that was wonderful.

His playing style is also very interesting to watch: his hands seem to literally bounce off the keys, sometimes quite high, sometimes very low. When he is only playing with one hand, often he will conduct with the other, or he will simply hold it still in the air by his head.

And his playing was so light. He never banged the piano, not once. To use a phrase that my teacher used yesterday in a discussion of older pianists, Biss "enveloped the audience" in the sound -- well, he enveloped me, at least. Not flawless -- I heard some slips -- but I got the feeling listening to him that the music flowed entirely naturally from the pianist, never forced and never shy.

The Schoenberg was neat. It's the only music on the program that I'd never heard before, and I had sort of expected it to be a little cold and impersonal; on the contrary, Biss made it personal. (Nay, he made it seem as though the music in itself was already alive and personal) The music didn't make sense to me, theoretically, but nonetheless I felt like it was still great music, and that it still had meaning, and I knew that Biss loved it, even if some people in the audience maybe didn't love it themselves (like the old woman behind me who was constantly reminding her young daughter (or granddaughter?) where in the program he was (to which the young girl would constantly respond: "Yes, I know!"))

He made each little piece its own character: the 2nd one especially was very neat. Very bouncy. Not dead.

The Mozart was amazing. As I mentioned before, the audience applauded after the 1st movement. (Biss seemed a little surprised, and he turned his head to the audience to smile before going on with the 2nd movement). No words can do justice to describe how he played the 2nd movement.

Then, the Schumann... I've listened to Kissin's recording a few times before, so I had sort of an idea of the opening: very powerful, and strong, and forceful. No. Biss played so delicately, and so lightly -- and it was very passionate, as is Kissin's powerful opening, but in a different way. Much more gentle, and natural. It did not seem like his blood was boiling or that he was trying to pronounce to the whole world his immense passion for Clara Wieck, whom Mr. Wieck had prohibited the young Robert Schumann from seeing. (Clara and Robert were married 4 years later, but at the time when her father forbid their seeing each other, they were both devastated.) He was pronoucing his passion to himself -- no, he wasn't even pronouncing it in the formal sense. The passion just emanated from his whole body as he played the music, and I could tell right away that nothing mattered at all in the world to Biss but the music.

I wonder if others enjoyed the recital as much as I did. It was not a virtuosic act at all. Well, of course it was virtuosic, and he handled the music very well. But it was very personal, and the music maybe wasn't the most technically impressive in the repertoire. I'm not sure how people reacted to the Schoenberg, if they liked the music or not, and the Schumann ended the entire recital very very soft. No grand finale, no big fireworks.

But it was amazing. And you should have heard the silence after the Schumann. Wonderful.

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#430346 - 11/19/06 07:46 AM Re: You should have heard the silence
Varcon Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/15/04
Posts: 1931
Loc: Mount Vernon, Georgia 30445
What a wonderful review you give Mr. Biss! If you enjoyed it so thoroughly, then it doesn't really matter what others might think about it. You describe variances of coloring in his playing which is one thing that does make it more interesting and appealing. And the fact that he didn't bang/pound is also impressive as that seems to be the trend these days--how long will it take me to destroy this instrument!??? The Schumann is one of the great technical and musical compositions and if Mr. Biss made it natural and easy--great repose while playing--then he accomplished what few can do. As to some note slips those pale in significance when the overall result is, as in my Philosophy of Art course at the Univ. of Chicago, an 'artistic orgasm.'

Congratulations on having a wonderful and impressive evening. You apparently learned a lot that might never evidence itself in studio work.


#430347 - 11/19/06 08:17 AM Re: You should have heard the silence
Brendan Offline

Registered: 05/26/01
Posts: 5336
Loc: McAllen, TX
Interesting review.

He played the same program here on Friday night and it was very underprepared. He had memory lapses in each piece and stopped outright twice in the Schumann. I thought everything was overpedaled (especially the Beethoven), had the same gesture of attack, and consequently the same sound. In the Mozart, the physical guestures he used were excessive to the point that he wasn't getting phrases to sound. It reminded me of Albert Mamriev, another pianist who seemed so preoccupied with making "WOW" guestures and suffered the same consequences.

...and I really couldn't believe what he did to the Schumann. Absolutely no character contrasts, no harmonic tension (he played the Beethoven quote at the end of the first movement like it was nothing!), and outright approximations of the score (end of the second movement). If you're going to play the high Romantic rep, you've got to at least play the hell out of it or bring something new to the table. Biss did neither.

Overall, it was unacceptable.

#430348 - 11/19/06 11:19 AM Re: You should have heard the silence
Varcon Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/15/04
Posts: 1931
Loc: Mount Vernon, Georgia 30445
What a completely opposite review of a different live performance. Interesting as it seems diametrically opposed to the evening Sam had. One would have to experience his playing to see which judgment would be the most likely.

Thanks to you both for interesting comments.

#430349 - 11/21/06 09:17 AM Re: You should have heard the silence
Auntie Lynn Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/07/04
Posts: 1139
Loc: San Francisco, CA
He played the same program in SF several months ago to mixed reviews. Then played with the Symphony and got raves - it was pretty good, I was there, as usual. He will be here next April with the Pittsburgh and Andrew Davis playing the Schumann P/C. I will file a report...

#430350 - 11/22/06 01:55 AM Re: You should have heard the silence
Lemon Scented Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 10/23/05
Posts: 15
Biss is undeserving.


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