Guest Review by Aaron Berenbach
Most artists have, from time to time, experiences as an observer of another artist that leave them wishing they practiced their art more. Experiences of an artist performing at the pinnacle of their art. Sunday’s concert at the Newmark Theatre by pianist Jonathan Biss was such an experience. Technique, interpretation, and emotional investment all combined in a varied selection of solo piano works that cast Biss’s considerable talents in a very favourable light.
Opening the concert with selections from Felix Mendelssohn, Biss immediately displayed the skills and artistic maturity that have made his reputation. Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Op. 35, No. 1 flashed by in a blur of smooth yet intense playing, Biss’s fingers only leaving the keys infrequently to keep his glasses from falling forward. Miscues were rare and almost unnoticeable, a difficult enough feat when performing the piano works of such a gifted composer and musician. The melody of the prelude, in an inner voice, rang true and clear. The complex structure of the fugue appeared reminiscent of the works of Bach, a composer that Mendelssohn admired and emulated though at the time Bach’s works were not as widely known and respected as they are today.
Continuing in the same vein, Biss then played three selections from Mendelssohn’s famous Songs Without Words. The first, Duet in A flat Major, was an impressive display of hand positioning as the melodic lines were equally distributed between the two. At times Biss’s hands were on top of each other, fingers going about their business with speed and precision. Happiness in A Major followed, a welcome glimpse of Mendelssohn’s sense of humor. Elegy in D Major rounded out the trio nicely. All three were played superbly, and Biss showed every sign of being as swept up in the emotional shifts as the audience.
Finishing up with Mendelssohn was his Variations serieuses, Op. 54. Mendelssohn avoided for some time the writing of variations as the style had fallen out of favor with “serious” composers. His foray into the genre however, was every bit as prestigious as his other works for piano. Once again Mr. Biss put on a display of technical skill and emotional sensitivity, playing his way through a dazzling selection of variations with what appeared to be genuine pleasure. The Theatre conscientiously provided a screen above the stage, presenting the audience with a clear view of Mr. Biss’s hands, yet at times his fingers moved with such speed and dexterity that the image became blurred as technology failed to keep up.
Jumping forward in time, Biss then played five selections from Gyorgy Kurtag’s Jatekok. Originally intended as pedagogical pieces for young players, the compilation eventually expanded to several volumes of small works exploring the innumerable “colors” of sound possible to be coaxed from the piano. Sparse, dynamically diverse, and (at times) extremely playful, the five selections showed a different side of Biss’s playing. At certain points the piano was so quiet and restrained that the sound was almost drowned out by the infrequent shifting of the audience. The sonorities were clear and unadorned, bringing to mind the works of both Bartok and Webern. Approached with all the skill and focus of the earlier pieces played, these selections provided both a departure from the usual fare of solo piano works, and an unexpected highlight of the concert as a whole.
Without pause, Biss followed the Kurtag selections with the lesser-known Adagio in B minor, K.540 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A short, melancholic piece, perhaps written for the composer’s own enjoyment, it followed the Kurtag selections as a particularly well thought out piece of concert programming. From Romantic, to 20th century, to Classical, Biss’s treatment of the music remained skillful and intent. The emotional connection to all the music was apparent, as Biss’s left hand would rise from the keys, almost conducting the music of the remaining hand. Sudden crescendos or halts would cause his hands to fly up and his whole posture to rock backwards, as if almost being bucked from the bench by the force of the music. Through all, it appeared truly to be the movements of a music lover lost in the swirl of sound rather than pretentious posturing.
After a short intermission, Biss ended the concert with Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A Major, D.959. One of three piano sonatas written near the end of his life, Schubert showed his mastery of Classical forms, mixing them with longer Romantic melodies, creating quite a large work (that behooves the smart musician to pack a lunch before setting out on the journey). Presented in four movements, the piece stretches over a large area, both temporally and harmonically.
Adding to his list of attributes a prodigious memory, Biss presented the sonata with no lack of skill and panache. Winding through the opening Allegro, the multiple themes stood out proudly, contrasting nicely against the new material presented in the development. The second movement, Andantino, moved boldly through some far-reaching harmonic shifts, their sudden appearance seeming to shock Biss as much as the audience. The third movement, Scherzo-Allegro vivace, displayed more of Schubert's original take on Classical forms, and the finale, Rondo-Allegretto, interestingly subdued, brought the massive piece to such a satisfying close that the audience demanded an encore.
Biss deserves the reputation he is still earning as an energetic, mature, and intuitive musician. His skills combined with the intriguing program choices of last Sunday created a musical event that tied together a sizable piece of the compositional history of the piano. The enjoyment he garners from sharing his gift is apparent and bodes well for both his future and that of his audiences.
Aaron Berenbach is studying music composition with Bob Priest at Marylhurst University and pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter/composer/teacher.