BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major, Op. 7; Piano Sonata No. 14 in c-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”; Fantasy in g minor, Op. 77; Piano Sonata No. 24 in F Sharp Major, Op. 78 – Jonathan Biss, p. – Onyx 4094, 70:43 (1/14/13) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Jonathan Biss continues his Beethoven Sonata cycle with his traversal, first, of the monumental E-flat Major, Op. 7 (1797), a work that distinguishes itself for its sheer girth, second only to the later Hammerklavier in mass and range of expression. It stands in its wide leaps, broken octaves, and tremolos to the classical sonata of Haydn and Mozart as the Eroica does to the conventional symphonies of its time. The aggressive and declamatory first movement yields to a pensive, searching Largo, con gran espressione in C Major of deep introspection, whose silences prove as pregnant as its thunderous step-wise chords. Biss makes the music dramatic without unduly stretching the lines to the limit, as had Michelangeli. The recorded quality of this movement (rec. 23-25 May 2012) by engineers David Frost and Silas Brown conveys a warmth and acutely sensitive pedaling quite noteworthy. Beethoven calls his third movement Allegro, unsure whether its nature be that of a scherzo or minuet. Rather than reduce the tension, its E Minor trio has Biss a-flutter and demonically minded, as a sign of the composer’s later audacities. The Rondo: Poco allegretto e grazioso again combines a leisurely, classical canter with several impassioned episodes of either potent counterpoint or emotional angst that balance against the otherwise serene figures with a deft sense of architecture. Biss plies these diverse affects with a genuine confidence and suave dramatic instinct that indicate what a young Rudolf Serkin might have bequeathed us had he so inscribed it.
For the ubiquitous “sonata quasi fantasia,” Op. 27, No. 2, the “Moonlight” Sonata, Beethoven indicates that “the entire piece must be played very delicately and without dampers.” Should the pianist keep the pedal down without interruption, the effect on the modern grand piano leaves us with dusky and exotic impressions much different than those which emerge on Beethoven’s contemporary instruments. Biss judiciously and discreetly lifts the foot off the pedal for selected harmonic shifts. Still, a somber haze hangs over the arpeggios, a liquid drama whose dynamics and textures consistently beguile. Liszt called the Allegretto “a flower between two abysses.” Biss keeps the articulation light but steady, the slight metric shifts dramatic in their own way. The terrific finale, virtually quadrupling the figures of movement one, explodes from its opening gesture, with pianist Biss seamlessly propelling the motives with relentless passion.
Beethoven’s 1809 Fantasy in G Minor, a marvelous improvisation (for Muzio Clementi) that embraces its neighbors, the Choral-Fantasy in C Minor, Op. 80 and the Sonata in F-sharp Major, Op. 78, seems wrought of a number of diverse elements, not the least of which is the stunning run with which it opens. Pianists Edwin Fischer and Rudolf Serkin found this wild but mesmerizing piece to their taste, especially since Beethoven exploits his infinite capacity for variations in its second half. Biss invests a healthy energy into his realization, percussive in the way of Serkin, but no less spirited in that we feel any number of melodic and dynamic horizons opening as he proceeds.
An amazing compression – ingenious and various – marks the Op. 78 Sonata in F-sharp Major, dedicated to Beethoven’s pupil Therese von Brunswick. Its two movements in a prickly key signature project a sunny, almost placid surface under which any number of asymmetries merge harmoniously. The pattern of the opening movement calls for alternating hands, a bravura demand on its own. The compressed sonata-form calls for a repeat of the second section, which combines development and recapitulation. Echo effects, trills, and intricate moments of counterpoint run through the fabric in a delicate but potent web. Biss executes the Allegro ma non troppo with a dervish virtuosity that still retains a sheer, pellucid surface. In this movement, he reminds me of Robert Goldsand, an artist whose lofty power never distorted the clear patina he wrought. A healthy, even rowdy, humor frolics through the second movement, with Biss executing a non-legato both piquant and feisty. The playful nature of the writing and the performance cast a brickbat at classical convention, and the sound we hear informs Nietzsche’s “shattering of idols” that gives his own philosophy that unrepentant charm.