BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3 = Piano Sonata No. 15 in D Major, “Pastorale”; Piano Sonata No. 16 in G Major; Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, “Waldstein” – Jonathan Biss, p. – Onyx

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3 = Piano Sonata No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28 “Pastorale”; Piano Sonata No. 16 in G Major, Op. 31, No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 “Waldstein” – Jonathan Biss, p. – Onyx 4115, 70:23  [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (1/14/14) ****:

Jonathan Biss continues his survey (rec. 12-14 August 2013) of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas with two of the 1801 “new path” works Beethoven had announced to his confident Czerny. The piano sonata as a medium served Beethoven as an experimental laboratory for the application of novel forms, structures and textures. The D Major Sonata, with its opening “drone” figure, rather deserves its epithet “Pastorale,”  which Biss performs as an expansive, relaxed exercise in sonata-form which still manages to surprise us intermittently with an extended dissonance, like an F-sharp Major chord spread out over twenty-eight measures of the development section!  While such wit may not be “quiet” or serene, the intrusive affect of perhaps a summer’s squall or minor tempest has passed, leaving the world only partially unruffled.

The D Minor Andante presents a sustained, martial melody over a broken-chord bass. Biss plays it briskly but delicately, savoring its shifts in register and penchant to melt into something more lyrical.  The playful, major-key Trio interrupts the thoughtful march, so with the resumption of the da capo, the music merges both impulses, closing with a pensive fall reminiscent of motifs from the Pathetique Sonata.  Beethoven constructs his Scherzo from selected pitches in varying octaves, a kind of whimsical shrug. He repeats the procedure, harmonizing the repeats. The Trio has Biss repeating four-measure phrases obsessively. The whole movement carries an impish sneer at convention. The Rondo: Allegro assumes the drone bass once more, now in a lulling motion, but each moment of ritornello carries a varied counterpoint, a kind of “learned” simplicity. Biss negotiates the rocking figures and the syncopes with smooth elan, and his large chords suggest the restrained power that Beethoven’s even “simple” tropes contain.

The G Major Sonata, Op. 31, No. 1 enjoys the premise that a lack of hand coordination can produce only humor. In a saucy exhibition of brilliant writing using a mere turn and a scale, Beethoven keeps the right hand slightly ahead of the left, and the ensuing antics might well serve for a Charlie Chaplin silent film.  The entire motion of the opening Allegro vivace exploits the piano’s colors while alternating major and minor affects. Biss has Beethoven’s wry and often rough humor well under his hands, much in a manner of percussion and timing I know from Rudolf Serkin’s legacy. The elaborate Adagio grazioso offers – more obviously parodies – an Italian aria whose melodic character has a slightly “tipsy” color. A kind of mock-Baroque tribute to florid writing, the music soon over-embellishes everything it touches. After a cadenza, Beethoven returns to the bel canto lyric for a new and improved set of runs, trills, and over-ripe filigree. Biss plays this movement as a self-contained world of melody converted into a purely “aesthetic” experience. Schubert much admired and imitated Beethoven’s Rondo: Allegretto – Presto finale, especially in his own A Major Sonata, D. 959. Beethoven’s rather elegant theme seems ripe for shaking: the turn to the main theme will serve to highlight the secondary theme and accompaniment. Beethoven’s canny use of silences will further displace the mirth of the moment, as does Beethoven’s retarding the tempo prior to the dashing coda.

Jonathan Biss reminds us that the ever-popular Waldstein Sonata contains as many pp markings as it does monumental fortes, and that rare is the performer who notes and effects its harmonic and dynamic ambiguities. True, the improved range of the keyboard itself provided Beethoven an opportunity to write a virtuoso piece that would display its range of expression, but much of the power of the work lies in its potential energies, alternately major and minor. The various iterations of the C Major triad proceed to E Major as a point of rest. The textures, too, as often become “Aeolian harp” etudes as they indulge in brilliant, fast runs and luminous staccati. That Biss does generate nervous intensity form the opening movement comes as no surprise, and his secondary theme sings a sweet aria in lovely harmonizations. The second movement, as we know it as an Introduzione: Adagio molto had been originally an Andante in E that later became the Andante Favori in F.  Beethoven opted for ambiguity as a dramatic transition (in F) to the Rondo in C, first conceived in 3/8 but converted to a plastic-motion machine in 2/4. Besides the sheer brilliance of the writing, that capacity for the keyboard to remain related to the lyre never fails to capture our imagination, and we envision the wonderful Titan Beethoven as one who sings affectionately even as his rages shake the heavens.

—Gary Lemco

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