Jonathan Biss, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London


The American pianist Jonathan Biss prefaced his Southbank appearance with the release of a Kindle ebook called ‘Beethoven’s Shadow’, in which he discusses the challenge of Beethoven’s piano music.

This is to get at ‘the music between and behind the notes’, the only guarantee being that you’ll never definitively find it. Biss quotes his tutor Leon Fleisher’s own tutor – the towering Artur Schnabel – to the effect that no performance can ever be as great as the work itself, which always remains more perfect in the imagination.

It was good to see Biss jump in with the fifth sonata Opus 10 No 3 – these early works are remarkably daring in conception, and their slow movements adumbrate Beethoven at his most oracular. The opening phrase of the ‘Allegro molto’ was smart as a whip, followed immediately by an answering theme of honeyed sweetness: the contrast was extreme, and absolutely right. Biss delineated the ‘Adagio’ – a long essay in motion and stillness, sound and silence - with marvellous assurance, hurling bolts of lightning into a placid summer landscape. The last movement came like an explosion of muscular energy, with its surprises sprung to maximum effect right down to the astonishing key-change in the last few bars. 

The poetry of Janacek’s ‘In the mists’ can be – should be - teasingly elusive, but Biss segued into it from the Beethoven as though nothing could be more natural: this entailed both gains and losses, with his earnestly expressive touch leaving little room for Janacek’s suggestive fancy. From there we segued into Chopin’s last nocturne with the same dark and heavily-pedalled sound, before climaxing with the ‘Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat major’. Biss seemed uneasy here: his playing was too careful to allow the right sort of swagger, and the dizzying shifts in mood and colour of its latter half came across as oddly passionless.

Janacek’s ‘October 1, 1905 (Street Scene)’ – inspired by the death of a young Czech in a nationalist rally, and later attemptedly destroyed by the composer – emerged as doom-laden as it needed to, after which Biss played us out with Beethoven’s ‘Les Adieux’. A brilliant opening movement was followed by an exquisitely-turned ‘Andante’, but the finale felt awkward and scrambled. Never mind: even Schnabel, whom Biss hopes to emulate, had his off-moments.