Jonathan Biss performs Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: JB Recordings
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Piano Sonatas No. 3, Op. 2/3; No. 25, Op. 79; No. 27, Op. 90 & 
No. 28, Op. 101
PERFORMER: Jonathan Biss (piano)


Jonathan Biss is a remarkable player of Beethoven, outstanding in a time where there are several great Beethovenians around. And yet this disc – he spends a year on each instalment of the cycle – does give cause for some questioning. The accompanying booklet, with photographs of Biss moodily leaning against brick walls, conveys the image of a thoughtful, withdrawn personality, and the performances are nothing if not highly considered. Biss’s technique, as displayed in the great Op. 101 Sonata in A, is up to anything he asks of it, and that is a great deal, perhaps more than the composer would have bargained for. Speeds can be supersonic, dynamics can be reduced to a whisper that one might expect only from a 20th-century composer, or suddenly assault one with their violence. 

We know that Beethoven was a revolutionary in several ways, and that towards the end of his life his works could become as abrupt and abrasive as their author but there are stretches here, among much which is beautiful, where Biss seems to take the works and hurl them into the future. That’s hardly possible with Nos 3 & 25, but No. 27, Op. 90 does get stretched beyond its limits, and though there are many things about the performance of No. 28 Op. 101 that I loved, there were some where it seemed to fall apart under the pressure of Biss’s demands. However, this is a disc to learn from, and sometimes to enjoy. 


Michael Tanner