Schubert: Piano Sonatas: in C, D840 (Reliquie); in A, D959

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Kurtag,Schubert
LABELS: Wigmore Hall Live
WORKS: Schubert: Piano Sonatas: in C, D840 (Reliquie); in A, D959; Kurtág: Játékok – Birthday elegy for Judit; Hommage à Schubert
PERFORMER: Jonathan Biss (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: WHLive 0030

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Jonathan Biss is one of the most interesting young pianists to appear in recent years.

Not only is his playing expressively subtle and technically impeccable, he clearly has plenty to say about everything he touches – Schubert very much included. The framing of these two fascinating, enigmatic sonatas with two similarly enigmatic miniatures by György Kurtág is an inspired piece of programming, entirely in keeping with Biss’s view of Schubert as revealed in his playing.

This is the kind of thing which, if I heard it in concert, I’d almost certainly be glad of the experience. Each piece has an integrated overview, and there are passages where Biss has something special to offer.

The second movement of the A major Sonata, for example, has a wild cadenza-like climax that in some performances can sound close to a composed nervous breakdown. Biss handles the return from this to the main theme with exceptional finesse. However the climax itself is just a bit too measured. 

The hypnotic steady tread of the first movement of the unfinished C major Sonata is well judged, yet the second seems more abstracted still – as though Biss and Schubert were conversing privately in another room, too quietly for words or feelings to be made out.

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The live recording is excellent, but for all the musical beauty, there’s something just a little frustrating about this. Stephen Johnson