Biss brings out the delicacy but is lacking in passion

Mon Apr 11, 2011 at 11:22 am

By Gerald Fisher

Jonathan Biss performed a program of Schubert, Schumann and Janacek Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

Jonathan Biss played Orchestra Hall Sunday afternoon as a replacement for Murray Perahia who himself was (briefly) set to replace an ailing Maurizio Pollini. Nothing if not ambitious, Biss chose to essay three major works with highly emotional contexts as well as complex musical challenges. He was mostly up to the technical challenges, but came up notably short on passion.

The Janacek sonata (I.X.1905 From the Street) reflects the composer’s outrage at the murder, which he witnessed, of a peaceful young Czech demonstrator by Austro-Hungarian troops sent to put down the nationalist uprising that was brewing at the time. The music is savage in its indignation. The first movement, The Presentiment, is a searing dialogue between the left and right hands with the left hand’s hysterical outbursts after a peaceful opening setting up the violent contrasts that prevail throughout the piece. Both movements are emotive and stark, but tender moments pass by as well and it is in these that Biss excels. The ferocious intensity of the piece eludes him, however, in an interpretation that seems rather too restrained and thoughtful.

Schumann’s Kreisleriana also has intense emotions behind its violent contrasts – the oft-told tale of his passion for Clara Wieck as well as Schumann’s own split personality.  The music also reflects its literary associations as a picture of E.T. A. Hoffmann’s fantastic Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, a creature of moods and eccentricities.

As in so much Schumann, the grotesque and the tender alternate and Biss again captures the romantic and delicate side of the piece but seems to distance himself from the overexcited emotionalism of the other side. Some technical smudges aside it was a good performance of a work that demands greatness.

Schubert’s late Sonata, D 959, formed the second half of the program, and this work, also burdened with the context of the composer’s last illness, brought the best out of the pianist. The sprawling work was skillfully paced and the song-like elements sang out, especially in the last movement. But there is a playful, if moody, element to the Scherzo and Finale that was missed in Biss’ performance for all his attention to the spaces around the notes. And the emotionally intense Andantino needs an equally passionate performance to wrest the deepest feelings out of it. The notes were there but so was the performer’s restraint.

As an encore, Biss gave a poised and refined performance of the Andante Cantabile from Mozart’s K 330 Sonata.

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