Andrew Alexander | 23 MAY 2019
Beethoven once instructed a pupil never to compose in a room where there was a piano lest he be tempted to consult it. Even those who have never written a note of music probably have a sense of what was meant by this strange, seemingly counterintuitive directive. There is outward music, and there is inward music. A composer should know how to create the former without having to hear it, and silence is required to listen for the latter.
Both kinds of music seemed to abound in the beautiful, almost spiritual final lap of pianist Jonathan Biss’ journey through Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas at Atlanta’s Symphony Hall. Biss performed all 32 of the works in a series of concerts beginning in February of 2018 and ending with this final concert on May 22, 2019.
As in the earlier performances, Biss’ program was not strictly chronological, but the first concert did begin with the first sonata, and profoundly, this final concert — and the series — closed with the final Sonata, No. 32 in C minor, Opus 111.
Biss opened the final program with several early works, beginning with 1801’s Sonata No. 15 in D Major, Opus 28, sometimes called the “Pastoral” for its gentle, lyrical qualities. Biss not only brought out the caressing prettiness and spiritedness of the melody, but also capably used dynamic contrasts and variations in tempo to create an overarching sense of drama. Fast passages had a lilting ease to them, sometimes a playful, almost jazzy quality, but the music could also become hypnotically slow, casting a meditative spell, qualities that were also brought out in Biss’ approach to the voluble and vigorous Sonata No. 10 n G Major, Opus 14, No. 2.
Throughout the concert, melody was always so clear it had an almost sculptural quality; unusual or inventive developments in the music — abrupt ends, virtuosic trills, sudden runs, brief silences — created a delightful sense of discovery, drama and surprise. Music as a form of wordless speech, as a stand-in for or improvement on the human voice, is a fitting metaphor to describe Biss’ approach to the early works: fluency, articulateness, directnes and awareness were among the many strengths he brought to the works. The third piece, the earliest work on the program, Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Opus 2, written in 1795 when Beethoven was a young man, radiated a sense of exploration, of simultaneous grandeur and playfulness.
If one compares the earlier works to the human voice, then a fitting parallel for the final sonata would seemingly be the hieroglyph: a separate syllabary, ominous, strange, monumental, cryptic. Beethoven was stone deaf by the time he wrote it, and as revealed in Biss’ stunning interpretation, had seemingly cast himself entirely into the airy, borderless realms of the interior. Unorthodox, mystic, mysterious, but never fully departing from the sense of play and exploration, its compelling strangeness, beauty and intense subjectivity emerged foremost. The late music can inevitably have an elusive quality, but in Biss’ performance there was never any vagueness or incomprehensibility. Departures from, but also connections to, the strategies of the earlier works remained clear. Especially well done was the masterful interplay of silence and noise in Beethoven’s dramatic pauses and in the final notes.
A great work of art always leaves you with the feeling that you haven’t fully understood it, that there will always remain room for further exploration and contemplation, and this is certainly true of Beethoven’s sonatas. A great performer gives us the clearest view of the many possible rooms and avenues, and Biss beautifully accomplished this in a concert that was remarkable in its directness and in its profundity.
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based writer and editor. Readers of Creative Loafing have twice voted him Atlanta’s Best Critic in the alt-weekly’s annual “Best of Atlanta” issue, and his features and reviews appear frequently in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Alexander Report, his new free email newsletter covering the best the arts in Atlanta have to offer, debuts in June.