Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos 5, 11, 12 & 26

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Onyx
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Piano Sonatas Nos 5, 11, 12 & 26
PERFORMER: Jonathan Biss
CATALOGUE NO: Onyx 4082

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This is the first in a nine-disc series of Beethoven’s complete Piano Sonatas that Jonathan Biss plans to record over as many years. That does seem excessively leisurely, however great a testimony it is to Biss’s seriousness and dedication. I would like to be around when he gets to the end of his pilgrimage, for this is a marvellously promising beginning by one of the most thoughtful and technically accomplished pianists of the younger generation.

He writes fairly detailed booklet notes, too, in which he stresses the dichotomy in Beethoven between ‘man against the universe’ and a transcendent level at which that antagonism is overcome. He plays the first three of these sonatas to demonstrate that the usual division of Beethoven’s oeuvre into three periods is a pernicious cliché, since many of the features of the so-called ‘last period’ are present from early on.

But his playing is by no means didactic: it is forceful, fierce but not exaggerated, and sometimes scintillating. In fact, it has much in common with Garrick Ohlsson’s, the last player whose complete cycle I reviewed. Both have a Claudio Arrau-like depth of tone, but neither sounds as laboured as he occasionally did.

When Biss reaches Les adieux, there is an element of the insouciance and peremptoriness which is so prominent in the last works, and which Biss clearly revels in. I look forward to the next instalment, if possible slightly ahead of schedule.

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Michael Tanner