I spent a few hours this afternoon in the company of Jonathan Biss, who has now journeyed his survey of Beethoven’s Complete Piano Sonatas, recorded between 2011 and last year. The layout of the individual discs (all separately available) is maintained for the box, and it’s a shame that the Sonatas’ details are not also on the back of each disc’s sleeve to avoid recourse to the booklet (in order to locate track numbers), which contains detailed essays by the pianist, proving him as accomplished at penmanship as negotiating LvB’s musical demands.
I put together a meaty recital of four named Sonatas – Pathétique, Waldstein, Appassionata, Hammerklavier (an interval taken between the last two) – and enjoyed what I heard. Biss is not a demonstrative player, rather he brings intellectual rigour to the task at hand, without denuding excitement, atmosphere or beauty (for the latter, try his tender Pathétique slow movement); you feel that Biss has immersed himself in the music (its structure, dynamics and wholeness) and is putting it back to us selflessly. There is no lack of dash (without show) in the Waldstein’s opening movement and he searches the slow one before finding majesty and reflection in the Finale. As for the Appassionata, Biss is a little restrained (as I recall, it’s Alexis Weissenberg, for EMI France, who lights the blue-touch-paper but doesn’t retire) and it may be that the American pianist’s reserve, even by only a few degrees, causes a little concern; all of Opus 57’s notes are present and correct … but.
With the Hammerklavier Biss is a little skittish in the first movement, if finding greater gravitas once through the (repeated) exposition. He is ideally discursive and drily witty in the Scherzo, yet the slow movement can take a more-expansive approach than Biss gives it (fifteen minutes is becoming too much the norm these days), which is not to gainsay his eloquence if not spiritual transportation. He is Herculean in the fugal Finale.
Reservatioins aside, it is with keen pleasure that I look forward to Biss’s other twenty-eight Sonatas, without forgetting unfinished business with Igor Levit and Llŷr Williams (both have released recent accounts of LvB’s 32). Biss’s 32 can be found on Orchid Classics ORC100117 (9 CDs).