One of the indisputable major summits of the piano repertoire is the cycle of 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven, and Jonathan Biss is embarking on a traversal of them over the course of three Ravinia summers. In recent years, Biss has established himself as a Beethoven specialist and foremost authority on the sonatas, and is in the midst of the daunting project of recording them all. The second recital of this summer’s installment was given Saturday night at the intimate Bennett Gordon Hall (which incidentally hosted his mother, violinist Miriam Fried, earlier that week) and proved to be an ideal setting to explore these works which bare so much of Beethoven’s soul. The spirit of Beethoven resounded throughout the park that night as across the lawn the Chicago Symphony presented an all-Beethoven program in the Pavilion.

Jonathan Biss © Benjamin Ealovega
Jonathan Biss
© Benjamin Ealovega

Rather than simply proceeding chronologically, Biss achieved greater stylistic variety in thoughtful juxtapositions; here, two early sonatas were paired with an iconic middle period work in the Tempest and Appassionata. Opening with the Piano Sonata no. 4 in E flat major, the first movement was elegant and deftly balanced, with thoughtful use of the damper pedal to add weight as needed. The expansive slow movement was deeply felt, Biss drawing out the indicated grand’ espressione beneath a classical veneer. Indeed, this was the first of the piano sonatas to be published as a standalone piece, anticipating the scope of the later works. In the third movement, Biss managed to bring out a coherent melody in the tremolo passages; a few darker interludes notwithstanding, the finale embodied a Beethoven entirely at peace with the world.

Biss’ Tempest was truly a stormy affair, opening with skeletal recitative gestures which the composer would famously use again in the Ninth Symphony, before bursting into volcanic eruptions. One would have preferred a bit more clarity in the rapidly descending passages in the right hand, but the execution was impressive nonetheless. A gently swaying melody characterized the second movement, later intensified with the addition of delicate filigree. The finale was arresting, feeling akin to the rocking waves of a stormy ocean. Biss adroitly guided the audience through the kaleidoscope of harmonic modulations before matters dissolved into one of Beethoven’s most mysterious, enigmatic conclusions.

After intermission came the Piano Sonata no. 5 in C minor, one of the early examples of Beethoven’s propensity for reserving the key of C minor for his most dramatic and intense creations. The crisp, dotted rhythms of the opening had a real punch to them, the fire of these outbursts contrasted by a sweeter theme which displayed Biss’ lyrical touch. The song-like repose of the middle movement offered some respite before the rambunctiousness of the finale.

The real drama, however, was reserved for the concluding selection, the great Appassionata.  Biss’ pulsating left hand in the opening movement built up an almost unbearable nervous energy, and the adrenaline was palpable. The chords that the open the slow movement and on which the ensuing variations are built were beautifully voiced, and not without a certain nobility. The arpeggiated variation was played faster than I’ve heard before, perhaps to avoid a lapse into meretricious sentimentality, although I must confess I prefer a slightly more self-indulgent tempo choice here. The volleys of notes in the last movement were punctuated by heavy accents, building up with inevitability to its cataclysmic conclusion.

Biss plays with an undeniable intellectual rigor, but this was thoughtfully tempered by a rich emotionalism and just the right amount of dramatic flair. It was abundantly clear just how much profound meaning these works have for him. And, if this recital was any indication, it appears he has committed the whole cycle to memory, an impressive feat in of itself. The bar is set high indeed for the remaining performances, and this promises to be a memorable and deeply rewarding exploration of this pinnacle of Western art.

***11