Piano Sonatas Nos 7, 18 & 32
Jonathan Biss (piano)
Orchid Classics ORC 100109 67:56 mins
This album concludes Jonathan Biss’s recorded cycle, and it’s exceptionally felicitous. Having devoted most of his energies to Beethoven over the last ten years – writing and talking as much as playing – he’s carved out a niche as the leading interpreter of the sonatas, so it’s no surprise that his liner notes to this record should be illuminating.
The sonatas he’s chosen to juxtapose are each the last of a set of three; each, he argues, represents a culmination, and through the questions they raise, they reflect the composer’s vulnerability as much as his strength. No. 7 may begin with a Presto which hurtles ahead – on the page so bare-looking, but here so rich in texture – but even in this movement there are questioning upbeats; beneath the pretty surface of the mercurial Rondo Biss draws out what he describes as a ‘festival of questions’. And he invests the strangely sighing fifths which open No. 18 with a diffident tenderness, going on to progressively darken the mood and colouring. All the effects are delicately calibrated, and the pedalling is very discreet; the Scherzo is thrilling in its airborne weightlessness, the Menuetto has ineffable grace.
Biss’s analysis of Op. 111 is provocative yet persuasive. Discussing what he regards as its inability to end, he suggests that its subtext is both the desire to live for ever, and the impossibility of doing so, with its final bars representing ‘a heartbeat that simply stops’. His performance – smooth and exquisitely expressive when it soars into the empyrean – conveys exactly that.