Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Happy 250th birthday, darn it all! Gilmore Festival presents Jonathan Biss livestreamed in three Beethoven sonatas

Among the cultural trashing that the current Covid-19 pandemic has added to its overall toll is the
scanting of celebrations of Beethoven's 250th birthday.

Jonathan Biss comes to Beethoven with a high degree of preparation and insight.
Just yesterday, we learned that the elimination of all Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra activities through September 17 meant that an appropriate observance to end its Classical Series — May and June weekends of the piano concertos and the "Missa Solemnis" -- had to be wiped from the boards. Some observers have said, at least since the 200th death anniversary in 1977, that concert life is already a perpetual Beethoven festival, but there's something poignant in the fact that, on a milestone anniversary,  the greatest example of a composer whose adult life was cast in the deepening shadow of deafness cannot be heard now in concert.

So the opportunity not to rely exclusively on recordings during the global health crisis depends on livestreaming such as what the Gilmore Festival offered Monday afternoon in a home recital of three Beethoven piano sonatas by Jonathan Biss. The eminent concert artist, born in 1980 and hailing from Bloomington, was honored by the Gilmore's Young Artist Award in 2002 and has gone on to  a career marked recently by his recording of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, works represented as well on the international concert stage before the coronavirus shut everything down.

The May 4 recital comprised three challenging works by Beethoven: Op. 7 in E-flat, by reputation the knottiest of the composer's early sonatas; the great cresting of his middle period in op. 90 in E minor, and the first of the troika at the summit of Beethoven piano sonatas, op. 109 in E. In his spoken introduction to the program, the recitalist declared from the piano bench that the final piece almost defeats any attempt to embody its sublimity in words. And Biss is no slouch when it comes to verbal eloquence about music and the life of a musician. (The biography on his web site is a sufficient example, with an opening paragraph I can confidently describe as unique in its genre.)

I will take a cue from the pianist and not offer a full-throated critique of Monday's performance. I could tell a lot about both the instrument and how much at home Biss felt performing on it, but I'm not too confident that my tiny iPhone speaker conveyed a more than adequate impression to me. It was evident that aspects of Biss' artistry were fully intact: the apt weighting of phrases, the rhythmic acuity, the technical panache, and an overall interpretive elan that seems naturally to tap into the music's significance. Biss perhaps would echo a predecessor's championship of the core repertoire, with Beethoven at the center: Artur Schnabel said that he wanted to devote himself to "music better than it can be played."

The second-movement climax of op. 109 was overwhelming, and I'm not referring to how it nearly overwhelmed my iPhone. But before those memorable final moments made their impact, I also enjoyed subtler excellences. To go back to the beginning, there was an eloquence to the rests that separate the recurring phrases in the theme of op. 7's slow movement. The weight and timing Biss lent to them  made the accents in the subsequent dotted figures all the more impressive, creating a unified effect this pianist seems to have no trouble producing.

I want to end by citing the start of the op. 90 finale, which at first disturbed me. The composer specifies "not too fast, with a very vocal style of playing" and the opening is marked "dolce" (sweetly). At first, Biss' presentation seemed too assertive — where is the singing quality, I wondered, where is the sweetness?  As the movement progressed, I felt Biss's performance grew into meeting that requirement, and there was no dearth of vocal style.

The change turned out to be more apparent than real. In retrospect, I happened to think that Beethoven's lyricism is always highly wrought, and a performer's being forthright in stating it doesn't violate what the composer seems to demand when he's in a tender mood. His sketchbooks indicate how hard satisfactory melodies came to him, and his final thoughts about a melody always seem unveiled and a bit bold, even if "dolce" may have been running through his mind.

I thought of a minor but telling example: the way an aria briefly emerges, something that could almost be sung by Florestan, as a secondary theme is briefly elaborated in the "Waldstein" sonata, just before the sunny Rondo finale begins. So, in op. 90,  everything Biss does in bringing out the melodic line in its first appearance seems consistent with his overall interpretation. Beethoven was thus properly saluted here as he was in the whole recital. And as a listener, among a presumably worldwide audience, I came away feeling a guest at this year's unusual Beethoven birthday party, thanks to Jonathan Biss's authentic invitation.

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