Thursday, composer David Ludwig joined Princeton audiences to hear Jonathan Biss perform his newly-penned Lunaire Variations in Richardson Auditorium. Ludwig’s piano cycle, though the shortest work on the program, became the centerpiece of Biss’ recital, which also featured works by Janáček and Beethoven.

Jonathan Biss © Benjamin Ealovega
Jonathan Biss
© Benjamin Ealovega

In today’s age, composers often begin a piece by opening up Sibelius, Finale, or other notation software, rather than consulting with performers and thinking about practical issues of production. Ludwig’s Lunaire Variations, however, is the result of long-term collaboration with Biss, and fully exploits his particular skills at the keyboard. The two met when they were students at the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, where they now both serve on the faculty.

Commissioned by San Francisco Performances, the piano cycle also celebrates Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, now in its centennial year. Though the music and mise-en-scène of the melodrama are often considered the most revolutionary and influential, it is the text that influenced Ludwig the most. The original work set a cycle of twenty-one French poems by Albert Giraud, divided into sets of seven, which had been translated into German.

Ludwig’s piano cycle is divided into seven separate pieces, which all comment upon the tale of Pierrot, whom Ludwig described as a “freaky turn-of-the-century clown” during his brief introduction delivered from the stage. The imagery ranges from the bizarre to the beautiful. For example, the second movement describes Pierrot drilling a hole in his rival’s skull so it can be fashioned into a tobacco pipe. The sixth, however, describes Pierrot paddling home on a lily pad using moonbeams as his oars. The fourth movement (“Moonspot”), in which the clown desperately tries to remove a spot of moonlight from his new coat, was perhaps one of the most ethereal and charming. Ludwig created the glow of moonlight by exploiting the upper harmonics of the piano, as well as Biss’ ability to let melodies float hauntingly, particularly at the end of slow movements.

The other pieces on the program were overshadowed by the Lunaire eclipse of the newly debuted piece. Still, Biss gave virtuosic performances of three popular Beethoven sonatas and Janáček’s piano cycle In the Mists. Known for his interpretations of Beethoven, Biss has recently begun a nine-year project to record all of the sonatas. Two of the sonatas on the program, Sonata no. 5 in C minor and Sonata no. 26 in E flat major, “Les Adieux” were also featured on Volume 1 of the Beethoven sonata project. To these, he added the well-known Sonata no. 14 in C sharp minor, “Moonlight”.

In fast movements, Biss played with incredible force. During the final movement of “Les Adieux,” the piano sounded almost like an entire ensemble, and Biss gave the illusion that he was playing an movement of a concerto, rather than “just” a sonata.

In order to muster to strength to execute difficult passagework, he energetically used his entire body. To compare some of his vocalizations to those of Glenn Gould would indeed be an understatement; his grunts and groans sounded more like he was playing in the French Open than a piano recital. Still, the sound was not so full of Sturm und Drang that the music lost its lyricism and sparkle.

Surprisingly, the Beethoven pieces were not performed with studio-quality perfection. Perhaps he focused more upon offering a careful interpretation of the Lunaire Variations in order to do justice to work of his friend and colleague. Yet, if one goes to live concerts expecting to hear perfection, one is doomed to live a life of disappointment. In the age of recording, it is easy to lose perspective on how difficult it is to actually perform these pieces at all. Often, concerts free of errors are also free of energy and excitement – two qualities Biss certainly does not lack.

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