Jonathan Biss – Beethoven – Piano Sonatas, vol. 4
“I‘ve been obsessed with Beethoven just about all my life,” pianist Jonathan Biss admits. “There‘s hardly been a day in the last 20 years when I didn‘t work on some Beethoven. But now at any given point there are probably seven or eight sonatas that I‘m working on in various stages of development. So I really do feel like I‘m living and breathing and eating and sleeping Beethoven.”
Jonathan Biss is halfway through a nine-year, nine-disc recording project of the entire Beethoven sonata cycle. The most recent is volume four, including the first Beethoven sonata, Op. 2, No. 1; Op. 10, No. 2; Op. 49, No.1; and Op. 57 known as the “Appassionata.” Ever since he started this recording project he wanted there to be a corresponding education component as well. That‘s why he created an online course where he looks at the 32 sonatas inside and out from the performer‘s point of view. When the class recently relaunched, more than 20,000 people signed up.
“I‘m not the most optimistic person by nature, but this has really given me a kind of optimism about the future of music which is moving, honestly,” Biss says. “The power of Beethoven is no secret. Beethoven‘s music marries unbelievable accomplishment with a ragingly powerful personality. And that‘s a pretty potent mix. So I think Beethoven‘s music, for those reasons, among many others, has captured the imagination of the public since the time it was written.”
While recording these sonatas Jonathan Biss says he‘s been amazed and surprised at how unique they are. “With Beethoven it is unbelievable, the extent to which he reinvents the genre every time, in terms of basics, of form, in terms of character, in terms of the sonority of the pieces every one of the sonatas has a different sound. And that is amazing, that someone could write music of such unvaryingly high quality without really relying on a bag of tricks. He was, I think, so restless in his imagination that every time he decided to write a piece it was out of some deep expressive need. That‘s amazing to witness and to experience as a performer.”
When Beethoven composed his first sonata, Jonathan says he was already wrestling with tradition. “Throughout there are little hints that Beethoven won‘t be hemmed in by the idea of the piano sonata as it was established by Haydn and Mozart. Already it has four movements Mozart and Haydn never did that in a piano sonata. It has, particularly in the outer movements, a kind of relentlessness, a kind of almost brutal energy again, that‘s all Beethoven. There is this sense of push pull with the past in Op. 2, No.1, which I find really fascinating to behold.”
So how is the Sonata No. 6 in F major special? “Well, for me, the signature characteristic of Op. 10, No. 2 is its sense of humor which is so often important in Beethoven,” explains Jonathan. “It has a whole range of humor, from rather witty games to occasionally, stupid jokes. The wrong key resolving a passage or the very short phrase being answered by an enormously long one. There‘s all this sort of thumbing of the nose at the expectations of the audience, which is something that Beethoven delighted in doing. And I think Beethoven‘s sense of humor is one of his great qualities and maybe slightly under–discussed, because we have this image of him as so perpetually profound and he was very profound but he was also a living, breathing person who could be silly. And he was wonderfully silly in this piece.”
The first sonata with which Jonathan became truly obsessed was the “Appassionata.” “I had a cassette tape of Rudolph Serkin playing it when I was probably ten years old and I wore it out. And it has, I don‘t know, a menace about it which is I think unequaled by any work, certainly of the classical period. It‘s epic in every way. It‘s epic in scope, in its difficulty, in the intensity of its feeling. There‘s a different bit of humanity that gets explored in every one of Beethoven‘s sonatas and in this one, it‘s the darkest part of it. You really sense him sort of descending into hell at the end of the work. It‘s an experience as a performer and a listener unlike almost any other. There‘s a moment midway through the first movement where there‘s an outburst greater than any that has occurred in music up to that point and he tops it about three more times over the course of the piece. So there‘s a sense of upping the ante in a way that‘s terrifying. As a piece of music, the “Appassionata‘ is terrifying.”
Terrifying, restless, witty — for Jonathan Biss it‘s all part of the Beethoven diet he ingests everyday as he continues his nine–year, nine–CD trek to record all 32 of Beethoven‘s sonatas.