Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances advanced to the third of the four concerts in the Late Style series conceived by pianist Jonathan Biss. This program was Biss’ solo recital. This provided him the opportunity to explore late works by the three most significant composers of solo piano music during the nineteenth century: Frédéric Chopin, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms (listed in chronological order of birth). Biss fleshed out the program with six short pieces by one of his favorite contemporary composers, György Kurtág (who is still alive and still composing).
The performance was an uneven affair, beginning with its most notable strengths and gradually losing its grip as it progressed. Biss opened with the Schumann selection, which seems to be another one of his favorites. This was Schumann’s last work for piano to be given an opus number, the Opus 133 collection of five short pieces composed in 1853 and entitled Gesänge der Frühe (morning songs). The WoO 24 “Geistervariationen,” “ghost” variations, were composed in 1854 but were not included in the 1893 Collected Works edition and not published until 1939. These were written only days before his suicide attempt, which led to his commitment to an asylum.
There are many ways in which Opus 133 differs from the previous collections of short pieces for solo piano. The almost hesitant opening gesture in parallel octaves, which then alternates with chorale-like homophony, can be taken as a suggestion that Schumann was shedding prodigious technical virtuosity as a snake might shed its skin. Following that analogy leads to a new “surface” that is inevitably far more sensitive to touch; and that analogy seemed to be behind Biss’ approach to the keyboard for this piece.
This opening is then followed by what might almost be called a “rhetoric of striving.” From our point of view of what would shortly happen to Schumann, one could take these as anxiety-ridden pieces facing the future with dread; however John Daverio and Eric Sams, authors of the Grove Music Online entry for Schumann, dismiss such hypothesizing as “a dubious exercise at best.” Thus, the point of the snake analogy may be that Schumann shed one skin simply in order to grow a new one. As a result, Biss’ approach to these pieces had no shortage of well-honed dramatic tensions; but it could not be taken as dark omens of the last years of Schumann’s life.
Sadly, that sense of keenly-crafted expressiveness in both the music and its interpretation eluded Biss’ approach to both Chopin and Brahms. For both of these composers, his expression of the score pages was severely muddied by too heavy a right foot on the damper pedal. As a result, where there was clarity in the Schumann interpretation to support the ideas of Daverio and Sams, Chopin and Brahms were murky, almost to a point of being barely recognizable.
This was most evident in Chopin’s Opus 61 “Polonaise-fantasie” in A-flat major. This is, again, music of dramatic tension arising from the music’s “inability to decide its identity.” The result wavers between the “security” of the familiar polonaise form and the “exploratory uncertainty” of a fantasia. However, because Biss could do little more than pound out the notes, the idea of a “rhetoric of insecurity” could never take root, leaving the listener at a loss as to just how to take this performance.
In the Brahms repertoire Biss seemed more interested in how the second (Andante espressivo) movement of the very early Opus 5 piano sonata in F minor served as an “omen” of the B minor intermezzo that is the first of the four Opus 119 piano pieces. As hypotheses go, Biss’ assertion is a very long forward pass that leaps over too many significant way stations along Brahms’ biographical journey. At best he could make the case that Andante espressivo “worked” as a tempo for the first Opus 119 intermezzo; but it works just as well for any number of other Brahms movements.
Brahms was represented by both Opus 119 and the preceding Opus 118 collection of six pieces. These were played in reverse order, so Biss could make his point about the connection. However, there was something routine about all of his Brahms performances that conveyed little of Brahms the musician-at-work, let alone how he chose to approach that work towards the end of his life. Most critically, there was almost no sensitivity to the rich textures of interleaving lines of counterpoint encountered in both of these collections. Not only were the lines themselves muddled, but also Biss played as if he had given little thought to how those lines shifted position between foreground and background.
Kurtág was represented by his Játekók (games) project. The project involves a very large collection of short pieces, each of which has its own individual sense of play. The earliest of these pieces were written in 1975, and 2003 saw the publication of 34 pieces in the seventh volume of the series. Biss played six of those 34 pieces.
For those familiar with this project, these were engaging explorations of some of Kurtág’s more recent thoughts. Those encountering works under the Játekók title for the first time, however, may have been perplexed; and Eric Bromberger’s notes for the program book did little to resolve that perplexity. Nevertheless, one could get the sense that Biss enjoyed setting out Kurtág’s mud pies for others to admire (to purloin a metaphor from Alfred North Whitehead). His sensitivity to these short pieces made for a logical sequel to his sensitivity to Schumann, and that latter may explain why his only encore, following his ventures into Chopin and Brahms, was a reprise of the first of the Schumann Opus 133 pieces.