Jonathan Biss, Wigmore Hall, review: Pianist fascinates with Mozart, Schoenberg and Schumann

It was not an obvious combination, but one which allowed their very different styles to set each other off brilliantly

Michael Church
Friday 11 December 2015 15:01 GMT
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Bliss has commissioned concertos from five composers to act as counter-weights to Beethoven’s five
Bliss has commissioned concertos from five composers to act as counter-weights to Beethoven’s five

The American pianist Jonathan Biss is putting his passion for Beethoven to intriguing uses: following his intellectually-provocative eBook Beethoven’s Shadow he’s launched an online course on Beethoven’s sonatas which has reached 100,000 people, and he’s commissioned concertos from five composers to act as counter-weights to Beethoven’s five.

But his Wigmore recital was devoted to Mozart, Schumann, and Schoenberg: not an obvious combination, but one which allowed their very different styles to set each other off brilliantly. And the tigerish attack with which he brought Mozart’s C minor sonata K457 out of 18th century decorum and into our 21st century sound-world had compelling authority. This work is as heroic as Mozart’s piano music gets, and its contrasts in tone and dynamics had orchestral resonance; what Biss did with the later Sonata in F K533 – with its exuberantly lyrical first movement, and its operatic Andante – was very different, but no less riveting.

Sandwiched between these works was Schoenberg’s 6 Little Piano Pieces Opus 19. ‘Away with harmony! Away with pathos!’ shouted that composer, extolling his own dry concision: Biss’s achievement was to make these rebarbative miniatures seem very big indeed. He expertly steered his final work – Schumann’s Kreisleriana – between its polarities of breathless excitement and contemplative calm.

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