Jonathan Biss — Image via jonathanbiss.com

Mozart, Andres & Beethoven

Jonathan Biss
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

Pianist Jonathan Biss is a frequent visitor to the Twin Cities, having made a particularly strong impression with a Schubert Club recital a couple years ago. Between now and the end of the decade, we will be seeing plenty more of him as he and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra complete a cycle of five specially commissioned piano concertos by five different composers, each inspired by and paired with one of Beethoven’s five concertos. That cycle began this weekend with a program centered around the premiere of pianist-composer Timo Andres’s contribution to the project, titled The Blind Banister.

Like many of Beethoven’s own compositions, Andres’s concerto is constructed around a few motifs that are repeated and transformed over the course of the piece. In this case, those motifs — two descending scales — are influenced by the stylistically anachronistic cadenza that Beethoven wrote for his Piano Concerto No. 2 almost 20 years after that piece’s initial composition. Across The Blind Banister‘s three interlinked movements, Andres explores different approaches to this material and different relationships between the soloist and orchestra.

Having not encountered Andres’s music before, I was reminded of the work of another T.A. — Thomas Adès — specifically in the way the orchestra often seemed to sparkle with asynchronous energy. Also notable were the several cadenzas, which evoked everything from Beethoven’s proto-Romanticism to the high modernism of Arnold Schoenberg to the more introverted excursions of jazz pianists like Keith Jarrett and Andrew Hill. Biss and the SPCO — conducted by Mischa Santora — were convincing advocates for the piece, and I know I’ll be exploring Andres’s work some more after hearing this premiere.

The other main attraction of this program was, of course, the inspiration for Andres’s piece, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Beethoven’s first two concertos don’t get as much attention as the latter three, and the composer himself even remarked that they were not among his best work, but Biss and the SPCO were having none of that in the performance I heard on Friday. This was not a respectful run-through of a lesser work but rather a committed argument for the piece’s greatness and its affinity with the composer’s later, more overtly revolutionary efforts. The piece brought out the best in Biss, rewarding his gentle firmness and rhythmic flexibility, while the orchestra — without a conductor this time — provided exceptionally sensitive support throughout.

Biss was also a featured participant alongside SPCO members and guest musicians in the opening piece on the program, Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds. To my ears, Biss seemed a bit more timid than called for here, but there were certainly some beautiful moments, particularly the dialogue between the winds in the slower second movement.

In any case, the concert as a whole definitely got Biss’s project with the SPCO off to a strong start. Even were it not for the prospect of four more brand-new piano concertos from some of today’s most prominent composers — Sally Beamish, Salvatore Sciarrino, Caroline Shaw, and Brett Dean — Friday’s Beethoven performance alone would be reason enough to look forward to Biss’s future visits to Saint Paul.

Photo by Benjamin Ealovega

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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.