Jonathan Biss — Image via

Jonathan Biss at the Ordway

Brahms, Janáček, Beethoven, and Schumann
Presented by The Schubert Club

Nobody could accuse pianist Jonathan Biss of lacking an individual style. At his Schubert Club recital on Wednesday, Biss’s brought some very consistent personal characteristics — including a decidedly romantic temperament, an extremely gentle touch at the keyboard, and the prominent but never mannered-sounding use of rubato — to bear on works by four very different composers, written over more than 100 years.

Biss began his recital with Brahms’s Op. 119 Klavierstücke, the composer’s last composition for piano and one of his last works overall. The four short pieces that make up this opus brim with ideas, and Biss aptly portrayed both their internal contrasts and their flowing continuity while maintaining a slow build in intensity from the mostly quiet, tentative first intermezzo to the declamatory closing rhapsody.

After the Brahms came Leoš Janáček’s In the Mists, also a cycle of four short piano pieces. In Biss’s hands, the similarities between these two works came to the fore. Like Brahms, Janáček frequently shifts between melodies and moods in ways that are rarely predictable but always seem to make sense. Biss was a powerful advocate for these pieces, which were probably the least well-known on the program.

Biss’s romantic tendencies were particularly evident in the next piece, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21, the Waldstein. The pianist’s approach was especially successful in the meltingly slow and delicate second movement and the ratcheting intensity of the third movement. What faded into the background somewhat in Biss’s interpretation was the image of the composer pushing up against and often bursting through the boundaries of classicism. Beethoven sounded more like the predecessor to those who came after him than the revolutionizer of what came before him.

Biss ended the program with Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. In his short ebook on Schumann, A Pianist Under the Influence, Biss discusses the significance of this piece for him, especially the slow dance theme that appears in the second movement and then reappears with its “yearning … grown to impossible proportions” at the end of the dreamy, dissolving penultimate movement. During Wednesday’s concert, Biss’s commitment to the Davidsbündlertänze was demonstrated as he launched from movement to movement, revealing the many contrasts of Schumann’s piece as parts of a coherent and compelling whole. At the end of the last movement, Biss inspired the audience to hold a long silence before their applause — not an easy feat, and a testament to the profound impact of his playing.

By the end of Wednesday’s recital, I would venture to guess that even the most seasoned concertgoers in the hall gained some insights into the pieces on the program. Biss is clearly a sensitive and thoughtful artist whose interpretive choices and immersion in the music shed light on everything he performed.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.