Jonathan Biss played an all-Beethoven recital at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival (in St. Francis Auditorium) on Aug. 10 at noon, and I’d bet that when it was finished he wished he could play it over again. Beethoven sonatas are a particular specialty of his — they are even the subject of an online course he put together for the Curtis Institute of Music (you could profitably check it out) — and he displayed a thoughtful grasp of their intellectual intricacies. For some reason, his fingers kept getting in the way.
Digital perfection is not the be-all-and-end-all at the upper levels of piano-playing, but there is a point beyond which technical glitches prove seriously distracting. He reached that point quite early on as the gaffes piled up during the composer’s Sonata in D major (Op. 2, No. 2), an early work published in 1796 and bearing a dedication to Beethoven’s erstwhile teacher Franz Joseph Haydn. The Haydn connection was most to the fore in the second movement (Largo appassionato), where Biss elongated the left-hand “walking bass” line, the notes of which Beethoven marks staccato sempre (always short), into a less abrupt, more stealthy kind of creeping. It was reminiscent of the first movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 22 (the Philosopher), where the line is also marked staccato but where performance tradition tends to soften it much as Biss did with Beethoven’s bass part. Overall, it was opinionated playing. The first movement, for example, makes much use of a figure consisting of five rapidly descending notes — half a scale — all linked by a slur. That would denote that they should flow smoothly into one another with no separation, but Biss took things a step further and consistently sustained the tones all together into a powerful thump — a blunt gesture that, while not beautiful, conveyed what one might consider idiomatic Beethovenian gruffness.
He continued with the composer’s Sonata in E minor (Op. 90), an eccentric but appealing piece from 1814, straddling his middle and late periods. Again, the playing was not immaculate — rapidly descending scales could land badly — but one nonetheless became swept up in the momentum of Biss’ narrative, especially in the lyrical second movement. If the earlier sonata has a connection to Haydn, this one reaches songfully toward Schubert. Some pianists craft their interpretations to underscore those connections, but Biss impressed by making them sound like neither Haydn nor Schubert, but rather like purebred Beethoven, which is surely the best course.
From both a technical and musical standpoint, the recital got progressively better, and it reached its highpoint in the Sonata in A-flat major (Op. 110). That’s not to say one wasn’t disappointed by a dangerous slip in the finger-twisting Trio section of the scherzo, which under the best of circumstances is a certifiably weird bit of music. Several principal sections are linked by distinctive transition passages, which Biss infused with compelling logic (both in rhythm and in tone), and his voicing lent clarity to the quirky fugue of the finale. Notwithstanding technical missteps, this recital bore testimony to an absorbing musical mind at work. One looks forward to hearing Biss again on another day.
Two days previous, the noontime recital at St. Francis Auditorium was entrusted to another pianist, Kirill Gerstein. Repeated exposure to his work over the past half-dozen years has left me wanting to hear him less rather than more. Nonetheless, it seemed that this Chamber Music Festival recital might show him at least partly in a favorable light. It would open with Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 2 and conclude with Book One of Debussy’s Preludes. The Brahms is the sort of weighty piece that seems to appeal to him, but Debussy was an intriguing idea. During his student years, Gerstein studied as both a jazz and a classical pianist. Although Debussy was not by any stretch of the imagination a jazz composer, aspects of his style were adopted by jazz practitioners. One arrived at the recital hoping that Gerstein might derive special musical insights from that connection.
Then one opened the program. An insert revealed that the concert would include no Debussy. Instead it would comprise Bach’s Four Duets (BWV 802-805), Brahms’ Sixteen Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann (Op. 9), and then the as-announced Brahms Sonata No. 2 (Op. 2). All right; we switched gears. The Bach Duets are almost surely late works, possibly dating from the middle of 1739, when for indistinct reasons they were added to the already-engraved pages of what would be published as the third volume of Bach’s Clavier-Übung, a collection of organ music. They are exercises in complicated and chromatic imitative counterpoint, somewhat allied to his so-called “Two-part Inventions,” though more idiosyncratic of demeanor and more extended in their layout. Their peculiar flavor has inspired all manner of speculative exegesis; they have been taken to represent the four seasons, the four elements, the four cardinal virtues, the four Gospels, the four precepts of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism — whatever. Gerstein underscored their severity and rendered them with a range of color that stretched from graphite to pewter, never once threatening to leave the gray family. His touch was mostly harsh, his scale-work none too even, his articulation of thematic subjects torpedoed by dropped notes. He applied bizarre accents to some phrases (even stranger than what Bach explicitly directed) and, in the third Duet, telegraphed the movement’s end through a concluding ritardando that stretched out for probably 30 seconds, a fifth of the piece’s total length.
Most of us who love Brahms do not do so because of his earliest piano compositions. Gerstein tried listeners’ patience by performing two large-scale examples back-to-back. The Sixteen Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann dates from June through August 1854, less than a year after Brahms met Schumann and only a few months after Schumann’s suicide attempt and resultant confinement to an insane asylum. Commentators speak of the Schumannesque character of this piece, but if that is meant to imply a sense of fantasy, it did not surface in this lackluster interpretation, which seemed to be a work-in-progress. The Sonata No. 2 is even earlier, from 1852, and it displays still less of Brahms’ eventual singularity. Gerstein rendered it rather in the flashier style of Liszt. When the leading line fell to the left hand, it was never less than loud. One would never have guessed from Gerstein’s performance of these pieces that both scores are filled with markings of piano and pianissimo. The third movement of the sonata (marked at its outset Scherzo, allegro, pianissimo, staccato e leggiero) was particularly effortful, played as if the weight of the world was borne by each measure, and its Trio section threatened to expire at every turn. Gerstein sounded more attuned to the sonata’s finale and did a good job conquering its masses of notes. On the whole, though, it would take a pianist of greater breadth to put this piece across persuasively.
It seems to be a tenet of classical recitals that programs may be changed without notice, but it is not a prerogative an artist should exercise except in unusual circumstances. Many people decide what to hear based on the music that will be played, just as they go to the theater because they expect to see a particular drama onstage. Who, settling in for an evening of The Cherry Orchard, would be pleased to learn as the curtain is about to rise that they will be seeing Death of a Salesman instead? If a musical program must be altered, I think it would be a good idea for the artist to explain the reason. If, for example, a pianist arrives at a hall to find that the available piano simply does not serve the piece he has programmed, it would probably interest listeners to know that. If a cellist feels it best to switch out this Bach Unaccompanied Suite for that Bach Unaccompanied Suite because she has just needed to replace a string and the tuning may otherwise prove perilous, attendees would find that thought-provoking. Audiences are understanding about practicalities that may arise, but in attending a concert, they have entered an implied contract with the performer. Changes should be announced as far in advance as possible, and their rationale should be clarified to the assembled listeners. ◀