“He made every phrase speak, and the subtlety of his inflections and his use of color were remarkable…”—Baltimore Sun

Jonathan Biss goes time-travelling through Vienna, presenting a fascinating interplay of music written at opposite ends of a century—and of musical styles.

Beethoven’s first published sonata is paired with Berg’s first (and only) sonata, a lush masterpiece of the Second Viennese School. A set of dreamy miniatures by the Romantic Schumann contrasts with a set by the twelve-tone pioneer Schoenberg. Biss ends his only New York solo recital of the season with the monumental piano sonata that launched Beethoven’s “late period.”

Biss is currently recording a complete cycle of the Beethoven sonatas, and he is known for his free online course on these works offered by Coursera and the Curtis Institute of Music.


Mr. Biss has graciously written the program notes for this concert. Click on the Program Notes tab above.

Jonathan Biss, piano

BEETHOVEN: Sonata in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1
SCHOENBERG: Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19
SCHUMANN: Waldszenen, Op. 82
BERG: Sonata, Op. 1
BEETHOVEN: Sonata in A major, Op. 101


This concert is approximately one hour forty minutes long.

 

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Piano Sonata No. 5 in C minor: "Allegro molto e con brio"

Explore the Music

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Introduction by Jonathan Biss

Of all the various activities available to pianists, none is as challenging or as intensely pleasurable as giving a solo recital; the challenge, and the pleasure, begins long before the recital itself, with the act of making a program. The solo piano repertoire is an embarrassment of riches if there ever was one, and the possibilities are simultaneously enticing and overwhelming—there are an infinite number of programs to be made, and thus a near-infinite number of bad ones.

A century ago, the prevailing model for the piano recital was that of the three-course meal, complete with appetizer, main dish and, crucially, the long-awaited dessert. It’s a metaphor as problematic as it is icky: not only is it limiting, it also suggests that part of the program is being played (and, therefore, probably also listened to) as an act of eat-your-vegetables duty. (Artur Schnabel used to say, tongue in cheek, as usual, that his programs differed from those of his colleagues because in his recitals the two halves were equally boring.) Today, happily, one has much more freedom, and I think I speak for many contemporary pianists in saying that the only remaining rule in planning a program is that all the pieces on it should have something to say about one another. A further freeing notion: that “something” needn’t be admiring. It could be confrontational, or an act of one-upmanship, or reflect the anxiety of influence.

All of those elements come into play in this program, which looks at the music of the German-speaking world over 116 tumultuous, impossibly rich years. Each of the four composers represented is in his own private battle with tradition; each seemed to find that tradition equal parts inspiring and stifling. Each sought his own solution to the problem it posed; none managed to be indifferent to it.

© 2014 Jonathan Biss

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BEETHOVEN: Sonata in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, March 26, 1827
Sonata in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1
Composed in 1795; 19 minutes

Beethoven’s complex relationship with the tradition represented by Haydn and Mozart’s piano sonatas makes itself felt within the first page of the first movement of his Op. 2, No. 1—the first of his 32 piano sonatas. The sonata begins with a simple upward arpeggio (known in its day as a “Mannheim Rocket,” to my perpetual amusement), a device so conventional it comes across as almost willfully unimaginative. But within moments, this gesture has been transformed from a formality, a nod to the past, into echt Beethoven: he compresses the figure bit by bit, taking the oxygen out of it and raising its anxiety. It takes the space of just one phrase for the music to rise from an easy piano to an obstreperous fortissimo, and the silence which follows is the opposite of a relaxation: the initially neutral statement has evolved into an unanswerable question. Beethoven is at work.

This push/pull with the past plays out, again and again, throughout the piece. Beethoven expands the scope of the sonata by giving it four movements, rather than the (maximum) three one finds in Haydn and Mozart—but in making that extra movement an old-world menuet, he shows that he will only stretch the norm so far. He gives the work a finale that bristles and threatens in a way that anticipates later sonatas such as the Appassionata—but within a form that is absolutely conventional, even symmetrical. Most telling, the sonata’s slow movement hints at the loftiness, the searching that became his more extraordinary characteristic (among many extraordinary characteristics). Yet its florid, vocal style gives it a veneer of propriety and even charm, two qualities Beethoven would ultimately reject outright. In Op. 2, No. 1, his personality is everywhere evident and fully formed, but the stylistic evolution that was to take place in the 21 years between this work and Op. 101 is nothing short of staggering.

© 2014 Jonathan Biss

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SCHOENBERG: Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19

ARNOLD SCHOENBERG

Born in Vienna, September 13, 1874; died in Los Angeles, July 13, 1951
Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19
Composed in 1911; 6 minutes

On the subject of staggering evolutions, there is the one that takes us from 1795 and Beethoven Op. 2, to 1911 and Schoenberg Op. 19. Despite eventually becoming one of the 20th century’s most unlikely Angelenos, Schoenberg was as steeped in central European musical culture as one could possibly be. Now 140 years since his birth, Schoenberg has not lost his reputation as an enfant terrible, stirring up trouble and taking an axe to the tonal system and hundreds of years of music that utilized it. It is thus incredibly important to remember that this was a man who so loved Brahms—the alleged standard-bearer of 19th century musical conservatism—that he orchestrated one of the elder composer’s chamber works; as late as 1923, when he was already writing dodecaphonic music, Schoenberg referred to himself as a “natural continuer of properly-understood good old tradition.” The immense difference between the two first works on this program—early Beethoven and early-ish Schoenberg —is all the more striking when you realize that you can draw a straight line from one to the other.

Classical musicians are always told not to speak publicly about a piece for longer than it takes to play it. Surely the same rule applies to the written word, and so I’ll keep this brief, because the jewel-like Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke are no more than six minutes long. They are marvelously aphoristic—a dress rehearsal for Pierrot Lunaire, which he was to write shortly after, and surely an inspiration to Webern and Kurtág. Schoenberg’s deep, non-stop expressive intensity can grow exhausting, but here, in miniature, it is breathtaking: each gesture is as emotionally precise as it is rich, and in the final piece, apparently an elegy for the recently deceased Mahler, the music becomes gravely moving.

© 2014 Jonathan Biss

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SCHUMANN: Waldszenen, Op. 82

ROBERT SCHUMANN

Born in Zwickau, June 8, 1810; died in Endenich, near Bonn, July 19, 1856
Waldszenen, Op. 82
Composed during 1848–49; 21 minutes

“Aphoristic,” “rich” and “moving: if asked to describe Schumann in three words, one could do far worse. (“Poetic” is a serious omission, and not a word I’d as easily attach to Schoenberg —one can’t have everything.) There is no question that Schumann’s unmatched capacity for creating a fully-realized emotional world in mere moments was of enormous influence to the composers of the 20th century, Schoenberg included.

The two composers are also united in being on the receiving end of more than their fair share of misunderstanding and prejudice. In Schoenberg’s case, this may have been somewhat self-inflicted, given his prominent contrarian streak, but when it comes to our incomplete and unsatisfactory appreciation of Schumann, we have only ourselves to blame: our lack of imagination, and of generosity. Schumann’s early piano music, which, comparatively speaking, follows patterns one might recognize from the music of other composers, is beloved and well represented on recital programs. But hugely original works such as the Waldszenen, written ten years after the Fantasy and Kreisleriana—ten years which saw Schumann’s compositional world expand to take in the voice and the orchestra, even as his relation to the exterior world contracted and his psyche began to unravel—are woefully underplayed. Knowing that the trajectory of Schumann’s life is a descent into madness, it is easy to assume that as far as the music goes, earlier is better. But the late works provide a remarkably unfiltered view of a terminally fragile person—one might call them recklessly moving.

The Waldszenen are not as extreme in this regard as some of the last published pieces, but they are well along that path. Something about the name—“Forest Scenes”—suggests that the music might be a bit precious and sentimentalized. But just like the Schoenberg pieces that precede them on this program, they are emotionally exact—each brief piece has a distinct sound and a distinct reason for being. While many of them are profoundly touching, they frequently also have a sinister side: in “Verrufene Stelle” and “Vogel als Prophet” above all, the forest turns dangerous, not in a creepy-crawly way, but because it becomes an external manifestation of internal darkness. For Schumann, that darkness rarely remained hidden for long.

© 2014 Jonathan Biss

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BERG: Sonata, Op. 1

ALBAN BERG

Born in Vienna, February 9, 1885; died there, December 24, 1935
Sonata, Op. 1
Composed during 1907–08; 12 minutes

This darkness, combined with an increasingly wayward harmonic sense, makes the later works of Schumann remarkably prescient of the early works of Alban Berg—in fact, I would argue that in their deepest natures, the two have more in common with one another than either did with any of his own contemporaries. Schoenberg was Berg’s teacher, and he was doubtless a huge influence on him. Yet there is a freewheeling quality in Berg’s music that is utterly different from the tightly controlled intensity of Schoenberg, and their personal relationship was far from easy: In what was, I’m sad to report, a not uncharacteristic display of meanness, Schoenberg chastised the pianist Eduard Steurmann for programming Berg’s Sonata next to his own Op. 11, because the Berg was, in his view, a student work.

Either there were limits to Schoenberg’s perceptiveness, or he was simply jealous, for despite being an Op. 1, the Berg Sonata is gorgeously wrought and has the composer’s powerful voice written all over it. Its single movement is in a surprisingly conventional sonata form, and yet, due to its constantly shifting tempo—surging here, hesitating there—and its near perpetual harmonic irresolution, it comes across as a harrowing stream of consciousness. Berg was only 24 when he wrote the sonata, but like nearly every other work in his slim oeuvre, it has emphatically withstood the test of time.

© 2014 Jonathan Biss

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BEETHOVEN: Sonata in A major, Op. 101

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

Sonata in A major, Op. 101
Composed in 1816; 20 minutes

To find another composer with such a high batting average, one might have to go back all the way to Beethoven. Which we will: the program comes full circle, closing with the miraculous Sonata Op. 101. Or nearly full circle, for the Beethoven one encounters here has moved in directions one could never have anticipated, with only Op. 2 as a reference point. Beethoven’s late style (or styles—these works are too original to be lumped together) produced music that manages to be at once infinitely absorbing and totally unfathomable: one is drawn to its intense conflict and even more intense spirituality without ever feeling that true understanding might be around the corner. This is true of Op. 101 throughout: it is a work that is beautiful and obscure in equal measure.

Unlike Op. 2, No. 1, which lays its cards on the table straight away, the first movement of Op. 101 is an experiment in delayed harmonic gratification: we more-or-less know that the piece must be in A major, but we only arrive there moments before the movement’s close. When we do, we experience it as an infinitely deep exhalation. (This harmonic scheme was a significant influence on the romantic and post-romantic composers; Schumann copied it outright in the first movement of the Fantasy.) The final movement is bolder still: vast in scope, it acts as a combined slow movement and finale, the two linked by the surprising, affecting, reappearance of the first movement’s opening idea. The idea of a sonata as a cyclical work, and one which builds inexorably towards its conclusion, was also hugely important to subsequent generations of composers.

This is all very well and good, but really, writing about late Beethoven is a fool’s errand: one can identify its striking characteristics, its innovations and its gambits, but that will offer only minimal insight into its peculiar power. Beethoven’s uncanny grasp of musical architecture and its psychological impact, combined with his ragingly strong personality, means that we are drawn to his music in an elemental way: he is as endlessly interesting to us as he was to Schumann, Berg and Schoenberg, and doubtless will be to their successors. For a recital program—or a life—he is an ideally unifying, challenging force.

© 2014 Jonathan Biss

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Meet the Artist:

Jonathan Biss, piano

Jonathan Biss is a world-renowned pianist who extends his deep musical and intellectual curiosity from the keyboard to classical music lovers in the concert hall and beyond. This coming Tuesday, he will release the fourth volume of his nine-year, nine-disc recording cycle of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas. Earlier this month, along with Coursera and the Curtis Institute of Music, Mr. Biss relaunched his massive online open course (MOOC), Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, in a new format. The second part of the course—on additional Beethoven sonatas—will launch in Spring 2015. A member of the faculty of Curtis, his alma mater, since 2010, Mr. Biss reached more than 55,000 students when the course was first offered in 2013.

This season, Mr. Biss will perform throughout the US and Europe, including appearances with the Chicago, Danish National, BBC, Stuttgart Radio and Finnish Radio symphony orchestras; the New York Philharmonic; the Philharmonia and Minnesota orchestras, and the Los Angeles and Netherlands chamber orchestras. Mr. Biss will tour Italy and the US with Mark Padmore and perform with the Belcea Quartet at London’s Wigmore Hall. He will also have recitals in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Houston and Denver, and at the Aldeburgh and Rheingau festivals and the International Piano Series in London. Additional performances include Beethoven's Triple Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Riccardo Muti, and an appearance with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3.

Throughout his career, Mr. Biss has been an advocate for new music. Among the works he has commissioned are Lunaire Variations by David Ludwig, Interlude II by Leon Kirchner, Wonderer by Lewis Spratlan, Three Pieces for Piano and a concerto by Bernard Rands, which he premiered last season with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He has also premiered piano quintets by Timothy Andres and William Bolcom and is developing a commissioning project based on Beethoven’s piano concerti.

Last season, Mr. Biss presented Schumann: Under the Influence, a 30-concert exploration of the composer's role in musical history. As part of the project, he recorded the Schumann and Dvořák Piano Quintets with the Elias String Quartet and wrote an Amazon Kindle Single on Schumann, A Pianist Under the Influence. Mr. Biss’s Beethoven's Shadow was the first-ever Single written by a classical musician and spent many weeks on the Kindle bestseller list. His website is jonathanbiss.com.

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

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  • Jonathan Biss, piano

    Date: Sat, Jan 24, 2015, 8 pm

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