Jonathan Biss’s interpretation of Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Vol. 6: Nos 9, 13 & 29

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Meyer Media
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 6: Nos 9, 13 & 29
PERFORMER: Jonathan Biss (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: MM 17034

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Jonathan Biss, the most overtly serious pianist of the younger generation, begins his liner notes to this latest of his annual recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas by saying ‘the Hammerklavier Sonata is impossible’. He goes on to say that ‘It is a psychodrama of behemoth proportions’. He is right, of course, but writing like that, which oddly wanders off onto lengthy discussion of sonatas not present on this disc, means that you expect his rendering of the mighty work to be somehow impossible too, and it isn’t.

To begin with it is rather surprisingly swift, especially the gigantic slow movement, described by Biss as ‘perhaps the greatest tragic utterance western art has produced.’ Actually that movement can be regarded in very different ways, but in wrestling with it Biss doesn’t seem to me to make any definite impression. Compared to Steven Osborne or Sviatoslav Richter or Emil Gilels he still seems on the outside of it. There are many idiosyncrasies throughout his account of the work – some of them are illuminating and fresh, while others seem to show a committed performer still in travail. He will, I hope, record the work again quite soon.

The other two works on the disc, early-ish sonatas, are played by Biss with rare spontaneity, and though they precede the Hammerklavier on the disc, they are better heard as light relief after the tortuosities of that amazing work.

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Michael Tanner