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Jonathan Biss: Pianist, author and prospective online Beethoven guru

Features - Classical Music

Jonathan Biss: Pianist, author and prospective online Beethoven guru

by Clive Paget on July 25, 2013 (July 25, 2013) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
In Sydney for three concerts and a recital, we caught up with one smart, literate and very, very musical Beethoven scholar and pedagogue.

For your Sydney recital you are playing four Beethoven sonatas. You range from the very gentle Pastorale, up to the hyper-romantic Waldstein. Are there particular challenges to encompassing that breadth of repertoire?

I think one reason that an all Beethoven program works, whereas a program of the music of almost any other composer is problematic, is that Beethoven’s music is so unbelievably diverse. I find that just working through the 32 sonatas. Having played 19 of them you think it would become easier to work on number 20 but it really doesn’t. You start at zero with each of them. That’s a difficulty in the context of a recital, but it’s also the pleasure of the work.

I’ve played this program a few times now, and it is an amazing thing to go from the Pastorale, which has an almost placid quality, to opus 32 number 1, which is so rambunctious in a way, and then ending with the Waldstein which is so heaven storming. I mean it’s a cliché about Beethoven that he addresses everything, but it’s a cliché because it’s true. These works are actually written in a pretty short period – 1801 to 1809. It’s within a decade, and yet still four totally emotional worlds, four totally different conceptions of the sonata.

So the short answer to the long one I just gave you is yeah, it’s a challenge, but the challenge is what’s so magnificent when working on these pieces.

You’re two volumes into a nine-year project to record the 32 sonatas. You’ve recorded some for EMI previously, did you change label somewhere in the middle, or is this a completely new venture?

The EMI recording will not ultimately be a part of the cycle, I will re-record those four sonatas with Onyx. I guess it was important that I made the EMI Beethoven CD because it began my relationship with his music on disc, but other than that there is no connection between that disc and what I’m embarking on now.

And somewhere in the middle of the Beethoven project you’ve managed to write two kindle books. How did you manage to fit that in?

Well the first one [Beethoven’s Shadow] I wrote while I was taking a four-month sabbatical from playing. The second one [A Pianist under the Influence] I wrote in a few minutes here and there, it wasn’t very difficult. It came easier. When I wrote Beethoven’s Shadow, it was the first time I had written anything approaching that scope. By the time I wrote the Schumann book I had some experience writing, and my relationship with Schumann is a bit more personal – it came out a bit more effortlessly. I think that I would find a musical life that was devoted entirely to worrying about the next concert to be too circumscribed. I guess I need the ventilation that writing and teaching, reading and listening provide me with.

And Beethoven’s Shadow – did writing that enable you to process and think about Beethoven in a different way?

It’s not so much allowed me to think about him differently as it has clarified things that I already felt. Sometimes when you work on music as a performer there’s a jumble of emotions attached to playing which are very hard to sort out. Writing Beethoven’s Shadow gave a certain clarity to the question of why I was embarking on this mammoth project. It gave me a bit of a framework as I was going to the piano each day and working on Beethoven.

On top of all this, you are running an extraordinary sounding online Beethoven course. Where did the idea come from?

I’ve recorded two of what will ultimately be nine CDs of Beethoven, and from the beginning I felt that I would like there to be some kind of educational component to the work that I’m doing on the sonatas. I teach and I’ve written about music, and I’m interested in engaging with music in a way that goes beyond just playing it. It just happened that the Curtis Institute struck up this partnership with Coursera, and they asked me if I was interested in giving the class. It was really incredibly fortuitous because it was just the sort of thing that I had wanted to do but had no idea of how I might find a platform like that.

So how does it work?

Coursera is an organization that partners with schools. Up until now it’s tended to be universities – Curtis is the first conservatoire they have worked with. The lectures are filmed on the premises, so it’s intended to replicate the experience of taking a course within the walls of the school itself. Of course I’m not giving piano lessons online, it’s a music appreciation course in a sense. But the basic idea is to expand the reach of the institution via the Internet.

And it’s free?

It is free, yeah. I suppose one day that might change, I mean Coursera is less than two years old. But for the moment all of their courses are free. And I think something like four million people have taken a Coursera class which has enormous implications for the world of education.

And is it true more than 20,000 people have signed up for you?

Yes, about 22,000 at this point. Which is terrifying. I mean, it’s very exciting but it’s terrifying.

So how exactly does it work?

So the course is on Beethoven sonatas, and it’s a series of five lectures, each of them an hour long but divided into shorter segments. So it’s five hours of lectures and there will be recommended reading and listening and homework assignments. The crux of the course is the lecture and what I’m trying to do over the course of the five hours is to give an overview of the pieces and the sense of the development that was happening in music at the time. I start before Beethoven with the state of music and the sonata in the time of Haydn and Mozart and then over the subsequent four lectures we move from the very earliest Beethoven sonatas up until the very last ones. It’s designed to get a sense of the amazing trajectory that he goes through and the huge evolution in musical style and language that takes place in those pieces. So rather than try to cover all 32, and have almost no time to speak about each one, I tried to pick pieces that were emblematic of their time and tell a larger story through them.

I have to ask – who’s your recommended listening?

Well, I actually recommended specific sonatas rather than specific recordings, but the complete cycles that I grew up with were Schnabel and Richard Goode. And whereas, there are so many marvelous performances of these pieces, I don’t suppose you can do much better than those. I mean obviously, it’s very subjective, but I feel very comfortable having made those recommendations.

Can we talk a bit about your musical background? Your grandmother, I discover, was the dedicatee of the Barber cello concerto.

It’s true!

And both your parents are violinists – weren’t you tempted to become a string player?

Amazingly I wasn’t. I’m not sure why, but apparently neither my brother, who isn’t a professional musician but did play the piano as a kid, nor I were ever tempted to play a string instrument. But I do think it was lucky in a sense. Growing up as a child of string players, being a pianist, it gave me kind of space that would’ve been harder to come by if I’d played the same instrument as my parents. It made it easier for me to develop my own way, to take my own path, to find my own voice as a musician. And there was never any question of my parents being my teachers.

Presumably it wasn’t just that they wanted an accompanist in the house.

No (laughs). That would’ve been good thinking though. On the contrary, they were really not in the market for a musician child, period. They wanted their kid to study an instrument but it took them quite a while to reconcile themselves to the fact that I would be a professional musician.

But you have played with your mother in concert I gather.

Yes, quite a lot. And it’s wonderful. I don’t particularly think it’s the genetic thing, but that’s the first music making I ever heard. So in ways that I probably couldn’t even describe to you it’s been enormously influential to me. I think so many of the very fundamental issues of music – how one feels the shape of a line and how one breathes – we’re just very similar in those regards. And it’s great to play with people like that, whether or not they happen to be related to you.

You studied under Leon Fleisher. He must have been an inspiring teacher?

He’s an incredibly inspiring person in general; and he turned 85 yesterday. First of all he’s just one of the great personalities, you know that when you hear any of his playing. He turns two notes and your attention is fixed absolutely on what he’s doing, and when he speaks about music it’s very much the same. There is a kind of effortless authority about him. You have the feeling when you listen to him talk, and especially about music – I don’t want to say the word of God – but there is just wisdom behind what he’s talking about. And he has an incredibly integrity about him. I think that is one of things that is most important for me in the four years I spent with him. He would never, ever fake anything; he would never fake a feeling; he would never fake a gesture. The idea that you would approach anything with less than 100% commitment and 100% sincerity is abhorrent to him, and I think that is a very powerful thing for me, to witness and I hope absorb.

Your repertoire is actually quite wide but your discography is confined to Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann. Is that intentional?

I would say that you shouldn’t record things that you don’t feel a close connection with, and while I never thought about it this way, and it probably is true, those are the composers at this point in my life I feel the closest connection to. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann. Those are the four. The piano repertoire is amazingly wide in addition to being amazingly great, and I am grateful for that. But those are the four people whose music I do come back to again and again, and it’s the music that I find the most nourishing, again in ways that I would have difficulty explaining. There is a profundity with those four that it is particularly hard to argue with.

And is there a composer that you would like to explore in that sense and record next?

Well I don’t know. The 32 Beethoven sonatas are taking a lot of space in my life, but certainly at one end of that spectrum Bach is someone who I have to come to eventually. I’ve been intimidated, but one day I’m sure that I will do that. And yeah, at the same time there’s a lot of 20th century music that I would love to record, I just haven’t found the right timing for it.

You’re not the first but I find it fascinating when great pianists say things like that. I mean you’re playing all 32 Beethoven sonatas but you’re intimidated by Bach.

Well, it’s very different in terms of the challenges. There’s a specific thing with Bach, which I find enormously intimidating. There’s really no sign of imperfection or even vulnerability anywhere in his music. With Beethoven, superhuman as he is, one senses in the music the struggle in creating it. Whereas for me, there is a kind of, I don’t want to say effortlessness about Bach, but there is a kind of inevitability about his music, even though it’s impossibly great. For me, it makes it very difficult to know where to begin. Whereas with Beethoven you never feel quite equal to it, but you know how to start.

Jonathan Biss plays Mozart with the Sydney Symphony from July 25-27 and Beethoven at City Recital Hall on July 29