BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas, Vol. I = Sonata No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 1; Sonata No. 11 in B-flat Major, Op. 22; Sonata No. 12 in A-flat Major, Op. 26 “Funeral March”; Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a “Les Adieux” – Jonathan Biss, piano – Onyx 4082, 74:08 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Having reviewed Jonathan Biss in recital, I am not surprised that his intention to record the complete Beethoven sonata-cycle, begun in May 2011 at the Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York, sounds so impressive. Biss recognizes the audacious originality of the Beethoven oeuvre, and he addresses the sometimes daring harmonies and withheld resolutions with a candor and intellectual directness that quite refreshes this music. The Op. 22, for instance, one of the perpetually under-rated works in the series, receives a lithe and singing rendition that makes its second movement Adagio con molt’espressione particularly poignant. Surging power, however, marks the finale of the Op. 26 Sonata, a virtual toccata that throws syncopations and bristling accents around with a debonair confidence. The Steinway Biss plays, engineered by David Frost, contributes to the demonic assertiveness of the composer, who in these relatively “early” sonatas, assaults us with the mastery of a form Haydn and Mozart had not realized could convey such monumental personality.
A Leon Fleisher protégé, Biss can claim a heritage in Beethoven that extends back through Artur Schnabel. To seek “the music between and behind the notes” remains their mantra. The first sonata of this new cycle, the Op. 10, No. 1 in C Minor, sets the tone with its catapulted aggression, a clear sign of the minor-key symphonies that lay far on the horizon. But Biss relishes the music’s repose as well, luxuriating in its clear textures and limpid ariosi bathed in the bass formulas of the period. The Beethoven wit, too, asserts itself in the jabbing accents and unconventional harmonic shifts. Biss reveals his own capacity for stamina in the long runs and lithe flexibility of his melodic line. Biss maintains a fine tension in the Op. 26 Andante con variazioni first movement, a taut line that concedes to tenderness when required.
The entire Les Adieux Sonata testifies to a dramatic sense in Biss that marks him for serious consideration among modern “Beethovenists.” The three-note horn call motif soon achieves a plastic dimension and expansiveness we know from Bach’s Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother. But Biss approaches the work’s mercurial fits and starts with the same degree of alert tension he bestows upon its more serene musings. The Andante espressivo, the “Absence,” under the Biss ministrations anticipates much we hear in Schumann and Chopin, starting with the former’s The Prophet Bird and moving to the Chopin B-flat Minor Sonata. Biss asserts tolling bells to announce Beethoven’s joy in the final movement, a celebration of return, perhaps of the Prodigal Son. Spacious and intensely paced, these sonatas bear the hallmark of a young lion who feels ready to proffer his mane and demand a goodly territory.
Haydn Quartets, spanning two decades