“Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start,” sings Maria in The Sound of Music. It is indeed and Jonathan Biss, launching his Beethoven 250 piano sonata cycle at Wigmore Hall, followed that advice, plunging straight into the very first sonata of the 32, in F minor. But Biss offers more than any “do-re-mi” beginner’s guide. He is an experienced Beethovenian, his recorded cycle is near completion, he’s written the e-book Beethoven’s Shadow and he lectures about the sonatas on the online learning platform, Coursera. What could Biss teach us about Ludwig here?

Jonathan Biss © Benjamin Ealovega
Jonathan Biss
© Benjamin Ealovega

This is not a chronological survey but the five sonatas Biss selected for this first recital were all relatively early, spanning the years 1793 to 1804. In his excellent programme note – entertaining and informative – David Owen Norris likened Beethoven’s piano sonatas to a “sort of confessional diary, where he could indulge his own private thoughts”, even when he was writing on commission. The overriding impression of the composer here, especially in the three sonatas before the interval, was of a young man in a hurry… or was that Biss himself? The opening of the F minor sonata (dedicated to Haydn) certainly felt inquisitive, posing a series of questions, but there was also a sense of impatience, as if Beethoven the rule-breaker was tired of observing the courtly manners of traditional sonata form, pulling at the leash to break free. This was often Beethoven the angry young man.

Biss raced out of the blocks in the E major Op.14 no.1 and took the Allegro of the E flat major sonata (quasi una fantasia cousin of the “Moonlight”) at a terrific speed, accompanied by noisy exhalations. Despite forcing the pace, he never forced the dynamics and even found an impish humour in the finale of the E major sonata. Long-limbed, Biss often maintained a straight back, swaying to the side, low wrists at the keyboard save for raising his left hand high to signal a sudden swoop. He held the sustain pedal to bridge the second movement of the E flat sonata to the third, but the finale that followed was rattled off, overwhelming with the impetuosity of youth.

Post-interval, Biss relaxed into the opening Andante con variazoni of the A flat sonata rather well, a fine reading, enjoying the simplicity of the theme which sang out with unforced lyricism. The Scherzo gabbled, losing rhythmic precision, but the “funeral march on the death of a hero” – whose? (as Owen Norris points out, “Napoleon had not yet blotted his copybook”) – was purposeful and belligerent.

The most famous of the evening’s sonatas – the “Waldstein”, dedicated to his patron Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein of Vienna – was a disappointment. Hunched over the keyboard at the start, Biss hurled himself at the opening so the Allegro con brio was practically Presto, with the result that articulation was not always cleanly executed. You might get away with such a tempo on a fortepiano, with its rapid decay, but not on a Steinway. It certainly had edge-of-your-seat excitement, but of the wrong kind, as did the Rondo finale, although at least Beethoven marked the closing gallop Prestissimo, so Biss’ tempo choice was better justified.