Jonathan Biss at the Wigmore Hall: Kaleidoscopic Playing

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Sonata in C minor, K. 457
Arnold Schoenberg Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Sonata in F, K. 533/494
Robert Schumann Kreisleriana, Op. 16


Jonathan Biss may be what you’d call a thinking musician. He has written books and given lectures on the music he plays. Biss is a performer and an intellectual, which can provide an added dimension to his playing. His concert on Wednesday night at the Wigmore Hall demonstrated this to some extend, although it followed something of a rocky start.

The evening opened with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C minor, K. 457. Biss must be admired for his incredible control of dynamics. He has a delightful ability to create many different levels of quiet, and he expertly controlled Mozart’s subtle crescendos. The sonata could have benefited from further thought, however. The first and third movements are unpredictable, switching quickly between lightness and menace. Biss succeeded in capturing these contrasts: he treasured delicate moments and he enjoyed the third movement’s speed changes. But the changes in mood felt disconnected. There should have been a greater interaction and continuation between the contrasts: loud should interrupt soft rather than simply happening.

Yet with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F, K. 533/494 Biss was more comfortable, conveying the first movement’s refined cheerfulness and conversational character. Biss has a rather modest personality on stage, which meant that the fast virtuosic runs in the first and third movements were charming rather than flashy. This worked well for the close of the sonata too. Mozart’s finale is not climatic but feels more like the end of a satisfying journey. As a subtle rather than flamboyant player, Biss created a delightfully anticlimactic close.

Interspersed between the two Mozart piano sonatas was Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19. The piece was written as Schoenberg was distancing himself from excessive Romanticism and driving towards concision and clarity. The six movements are atonal (i.e. lacking any tonal centre) and extremely short. Biss is sympathetic to Schoenberg’s aims, treasuring the collection of sounds that Schoenberg’s atonality presents and enjoying the richness of the dissonant juxtaposition of notes. His playing was characterful: portraying jauntiness in the fourth movement and the otherworldliness of the work’s final moments.

Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Op. 16 may be resolutely tonal in comparison, but it is similarly compact for the huge number of personalities that Schumann squeezes in. The piece consists of eight movements that alternate between fast and slow, exploring the assertive and the wistful respectively. But Schumann takes this even further: each movement has a contrasting middle section, which means whichever emotion is explored in each movement is shown as having another side. It was here that Biss, as a thinking musician, had his greatest triumphs. He played with incredible empathy, capturing Schumann’s unrelenting and rather unnerving energy at some moments, as well as the astonishing inwardness that speaks to the soul.

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