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January 24, 2011

Jonathan Biss offers bravura and poetry in piano recital at Shriver Hall

When Jonathan Biss made his Shriver Hall Concert Series debut in 2002, he sounded like a technically gifted pianist who needed to develop a little more subtlety and nuance.

The Jonathan Biss who returned to Shriver Hall Sunday evening revealed no shortage of variety in his touch and in his phrasing as he moved through a demanding program that he also performed Friday at Carnegie Hall.

The comparison with nine years ago was made all the clearer when the pianist turned to Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata. In '02, he tore into the score with plenty of digital fire power, but it all ended up sounding merely fast and loud.

This time, there was not just terrific drama and fire, but also finely shaded colors and wonderful rhythmic fluidity. The performance had the stamp of a keen musical intellect with a strongly communicative personality to match.

Biss opened the recital with the dark, rather haunting Sonata "1.X.1905" by Janacek. It's a kind of eulogy to a young man slain in Brno during a protest against the government's refusal to allow a local university to use the Czech language, rather than German. Biss, an ardent proponent of Janacek's music, delved beneath the notes to find considerable emotional weight.

Three Pieces for Piano by Bernard Rands, composed for the pianist, are

concise, brilliantly crafted etude-like works. They provide great opportunities for pure virtuosity, as in pointillistic flurries in the "Caprice" and the rapid, percussive repeated note motives that dart through the "Arabesque." Biss rose to those challenges with aplomb. He was just as impressive exploring the lyrical side, as in the "Aubade," which seems to be haunted by the harmonic turns of the Prelude to Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde."

It wasn't always easy to concentrate on the music-making up in the balcony, where there were assorted distractions from concert-goers, but, like several other folks, I sought quieter ground for the second half, which was devoted to Schumann's richly layered Fantasy in C major.

One or two passages could have been cleaner, but the pianist's command of the keyboard and the music's noble sentiments was never in doubt. It was an engrossing account that seemed at once spontaneous and deeply considered. His phrasing of the poignant closing measures proved remarkably affecting.

No encore would have been necessary after such music, but Biss responded to the warm ovation with a perfect choice -- the slow movement from Mozart's C major Sonata, K. 545. The graceful, songful way he sculpted the phrases said a lot about the pianist and his considerable artistry.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:21 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes


Here is Anthony Tommasini's review in the N.Y. Times of Biss's Carnegie Hall performance: (At Carnegie Hall, Biss played a different slow movement of Mozart's for an encore.) Do musicians often play Carnegie Hall as a warm-up for their big night in Baltimore?

Oh yes, playing Baltimore is the pinnacle of anyone's career, as I can attest. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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