Jonathan Biss

Composers: Beethoven
Compositions: Piano Sonatas Nos 8, 20, 22 and 31
Performers: Jonathan Biss
Catalogue Number: Meyer Media MM19040

It is taking nine years – and nine discs – but pianist Jonathan Biss is nearing the end of his authoritative and highly praised Beethoven sonata cycle which he describes as “one of the most profound experiences of my life”. In this, the penultimate album, the 32-year-old American takes the Pathétique as the starting point and mother lode for the three sonatas – Nos 10, 22 and 31 – that accompany it.

Beethoven’s 13th sonata, the first to break free of accepted structure constraints, especially in the first movement, gets our attention straight away with that arresting opening chord and even if you haven’t listened to any of the previous seven volumes in the set you are immediately aware that this is a masterful survey. Biss manages the necessary heft without over-egging the cake and brings a clear and fine poetic line to all he does. The much-performed middle movement, although taken faster than his idol Artur Schnabel, captures the master’s floating tranquillity while the faster movements, and especially the second movement of No 22, have all the great man’s bounce and flair. Biss has grown up with and thoroughly researched Beethoven’s piano works and that knowledge, respect and love for their myriad facets shines through.

His sense of structure is spot-on. The promethean No 31, the penultimate sonata in the cycle, is a consummately balanced performance that builds to a thrilling climax which takes one’s breath away. The simple and carefree charms of the No 10 are dispatched with wit and Mozartian lightness under Biss’s deft touch. Explaining his programming, Biss says: “I had really just one priority: to showcase Beethoven’s staggering range – of expression and of invention – as much as possible on each [disc]”. For this one everything flows from the disparate elements of the Pathétique where “we see for the first time [Beethoven’s] disdain for existing rules”. The album hangs together well.

Of course there are countless rival complete sets to compete for your attention. Angela Hewitt has been compiling her magnificent collection over the past 13 years and the recently released edge-of-the-seat 2012 cycle by Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear earned a five-star rating from this reviewer.
Nor should we forget Ronald Brautigam’s superb historically informed fortepiano interpretation. But Biss’s reading has a sense of rightness about it that demands to be heard.

Eight down and one to go with Sonatas Nos 7, 18 and 32 to complete this stunning set.

Jonathan Biss’ Beethoven Piano Sonatas Vol 8 is Limelight‘s Recording of the Month for July.