What is Late Style? It’s a question that has long preoccupied writers and thinkers, from Theodor Adorno to Edward Said. And now the pianist Jonathan Biss, whose current series of concerts explores the concept of Late Style through a variety of composers and works. Some composers have a distinct Late Style – Beethoven, for example, who was long lived (by the standards of his time) and whose late works reveal an intense otherworldliness and sense of acceptance (but never resignation). For Chopin and Schumann, who both died relatively young and whose music featured in this programme, lateness is relative, almost a philosophical construct.

Jonathan Biss © Benjamin Ealovega
Jonathan Biss
© Benjamin Ealovega

For Jonathan Biss, lateness is not just about maturity of years (the most obvious example in this programme being Johannes Brahms) but also an attitude of mind. In composers who died young, in particular, there is the sense of a life lived with intensity, that time is finite, and this seems to have focused composers’ imaginations in a very specific way. For a more senior composer, such as Brahms, the combination of accumulated wisdom and the sense that time is limited, produces music which is impeccably wrought yet emotionally unleashed.

In the late piano works which form Opp.118 and 119, there is a serenity and vulnerability, an acceptance that the end is near, yet these works are not valedictory. Biss preceded these pieces with the second movement of Brahms’ early Third Piano Sonata, showing how the chain of falling thirds pre-echoed the opening of the Op.119, the last pieces Brahms wrote for the piano. It was interesting to hear the connections: the piano sonata, written when he was only 20, already sounds fully formed, mature and sophisticated. In the late piano works, there is greater spaciousness, more freedom of expression, a sense of a composer who no longer has anything to prove. In the post-concert talk, Biss admitted his great affection for Brahms’ music and this was clear in his performance. A generous, warm tone, careful attention to details of phrasing, tempo, rubato and articulation, and a sensitivity to Brahms’ shifting moods – from achingly tender to almost chaotically reckless in the Rhapsody of Op.119, made this, for me, the highlight of this interesting programme.

The programme opened with Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe, composed in November 1853, just a few months before Schumann’s irretrievable mental breakdown. Here is a composer who has turned desperately inward, the “Eusebius” (sensitive, introverted) side of his personality very much to the fore. The music has a bittersweet quality, and Biss’ ability to highlight the lyricism and poetry which overlaid darker undercurrents of emotion made this an absorbing and thoughtful opener to the concert.

Kurtág’s miniatures – six fleeting yet highly concentrated pieces from the huge sequence called Játékok (Games) – revealed Biss’ persuasively rich tonal palette and his appreciation of Kurtág’s understated yet emotionally intense soundworld. These are late works “in spirit” (and for a composer as long lived as Kurtág’, they may well be his “middle period” works!) with their reminiscences and dedications, and a sense of not needing to speak too loudly.

Chopin’s mighty Polonaise-Fantaisie Op.61 followed almost without a pause, its drama and fervency providing a striking contrast to the previous works. Here and there it felt rather muddled, when the line was lost in the almost ferociously extrovert passages, but the overall effect was one of uncertainty and improvisation, a sense of the composer asking of himself and audience “What kind of a piece is this?”.

If the programme had an obvious theme (aside from Late Style), it would be the intensity of the music performed: four composers who had found a purity of expression in their late works, a compelling need to speak with the freedom to say what they need to say without concern of how their music would be received.

In the final concert of this series, Biss is joined by tenor Mark Padmore to explore Schubert’s last songs, and the great A major Piano Sonata, D959 – highly works emblematic of Schubert’s final year which reveal a composer facing death as stylistically as diverse as ever.