Thursday, December 20, 2012

Pianist Jonathan Biss performs "moderately early" Beethoven

As I noted on a December 1, 2012 Kennedy Center concert review, I met pianist Jonathan Biss after his performance of a Mozart concerto.  I bought his Onyx CD where he performs four relatively early Beethoven piano sonatas.

The Amazon link is here. I'm old school, with vinvyl records and CD's; but today it's enough  (totally legal, and cheaper) to buy the MP3 files and PDF notes, and let the Cloud back them up for you. This may not help musicians make a living on the royalties that they need and earn.  Composers make their own MP3 files with iTunes.  
Early Beethoven is distinguishable from Mozart and Haydn in the way if build themes out of technical motives. The first work on the CD is the Piano Sonata #5 in C Minor, which sounds a bit understated compared to the much more famous Pathetique (#8).  It has three movements, and the final  Prestissimo ends quietly.  (Beethoven had done that in #4 in E-flat, where the final winds us down in grace.)

I was not very familiar with #11, in B-flat.  In my William and Mary days in 1961, a college chum had said that “B-flat major” was his least favorite key.  He had also said that nobody should pay Beethoven until he is 30 (Biss is 32).  The four movement work seems a bit impish and playful.  But if the finale is meant to be a bit relaxed (Allegretto), it at least ends on a fortissimo chord.

Piano Sonata #12 in A-flat, the “Funeral March”, is well known, most of all for its march in the ultimate key of A-flat minor (seven flats – why not G# Minor?) The theme certainly exemplifies simplicity, and probably inspired a similar movement by Chopin a some years later. The first movement is a Theme and Variations rather than a Sonata, but Mozart had done this with his A Major sonata.  The finale is another relaxation, despite the “Allegro” marking, closing simply and quietly, as if to invite a response. 

The last Sonata on the CD is #26 in E-flat, the famous “Les Adieux”, where Beethoven made an odd experiment with program music in an abstract form.  The harmonies in this work have always seemed a little grating to me.  But the sequence, “Farewell, Absence, “Return” pretty much depicts a psychological experience that I “lived through” in New York City in 1978.  (By the time of Bucky Dent’s home run, the “return” had happened, and Beethoven makes it joyful and conclusive.)  Yet, the experience would lead to a windshift in my own life, and a move to Dallas in 1979.

National Public Radio takes you into Jonathan’s Upper West Side apartment (not the picture, but close enough). 

Something about the name "Biss" strikes me.  There is a Swedish music company with that name but only one "S".  In German, the "s"  would be doubled.  

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