Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos 2, 17, 20 and 30

Jonathan Biss (Meyer Media)

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Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos 2, 17, 20 and 30
Jonathan Biss (piano)
Meyer Media MM18037 68:45 mins

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The idea of Beethoven as the grim, set-faced, perpetual striver, far too intent on storming the heavens to allow himself the luxury of even a passing smile, has fortunately taken a bit of a knock in recent years. There is also playfulness, wit – sometimes tigerish, but often surprisingly delicate – and nowhere more so than in the piano sonatas. Not only is American pianist Jonathan Biss a highly refined and intelligent musician, but he also understands this aspect of Beethoven as well as anyone performing today.

It shines out, not only in the Haydn-inspired Sonata Op. 2 No. 2 and the engagingly modest Op. 49 No. 2, but even in parts of the turbulent Tempest Sonata (Op. 31 No. 2), and throughout the sublime late Op. 109. Others, such as Artur Schnabel, Freddy Kempf, and Richard Goode, may have conveyed more of a sense of the inner struggle in Op. 109, but it’s hard to think of another pianist who communicates such a sense of sheer delight. Beethoven’s personal life may have been short on joy, but listening to Jonathan Biss leaves one feeling grateful that he was able to discover it in composing.

And there is pathos too: in the ghostly instrumental recitatives of Op. 31 No. 2, in the surprisingly probing slow movement of Op. 2 No. 2, and in the soaring climactic variation of Op. 109. It’s a remarkable disc, beautifully recorded, but perhaps best appreciated whole.

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Stephen Johnson