A radiant Beethoven in the hands of Jonathan Biss

Jonathan Biss
The Globe and Mail

By Ken Winters

The axiom about Beethoven’s music is that it is so marvellously constructed and so intrinsically momentous that it will shine through even bad performances. The corollary, though, is that when it is performed superbly well, few musical experiences can surpass it.

And so it proved on Saturday night. The National Arts Centre Orchestra came to town, under the baton of Pinchas Zuckerman and the auspices of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and with 30-year-old U.S. pianist Jonathan Biss in tow. They gave us memorably radiant and vigorous accounts of the master’s Second Symphony and Fifth Piano Concerto (the “Emperor”).

The program opened curiously with a gloomy little work composed in 1963 by Polish-Canadian Peter Paul Koprowski when he was a lad of 16 studying music in an oppressed Poland. The piece was conceived originally as a memorial to those who had perished in an unjust war. It was only later published under the title In Memoriam Karol Szymanowski. (Born in 1882, Szymanowski was the leading Polish composer of his era.)

The piece is characterized by a dark, doom-laden theme in the double basses which underlies and haunts the entire fabric of its structure, alleviated occasionally by strange and delicate effects from the upper instruments. This is music of a very young man, understandably embittered and in deadly earnest.

But Beethoven did come to a bemused audience’s rescue on Saturday.

In his Second Symphony, the giant of Bonn, at 32, laid brilliant claim to symphonic form, taking it over peremptorily yet joyously from his great predecessors Haydn and Mozart, making it singularly his own. The beauties and originalities, particularly lavish in its opening movement but also there in the other three, are a treat. And the NACO, if not always with immaculate finesse, rejoiced in them exuberantly. Zuckerman conducted without a score and with almost casual aplomb, but the results he got were fresh and engrossing.

Beethoven was still not 40 in 1809 when he completed his last piano concerto, the “Emperor,” but he was by then so deaf that he was unable to play the piano part in its premiere, in Leipzig. That honour went instead to the German pianist Friedrich Schneider.

I realized immediately, with those electrifying bravura perorations in which the pianist answers each of the three massive chords hurled down by the orchestra to open this thrilling, magisterial work, that Jonathan Biss would give us an account of the solo part to match the best I have heard.

In its combination of rhythmic acuity, constant awareness of structural direction, crystalline clarity of chording, embellishments and trills, and in its just balance of intellect and passion, Biss’s performance recalled the Beethovenian integrity and enlightenment of the great Rudolf Serkin, all newly minted in Biss’s youth. After the gripping brilliance and grandeur of the opening movement the sublime serenity of the central adagio unfurled and drifted into the raptly silent hall with the clear simplicity of a perfect dream.

The double-speed leap upward on the third beat of the piano’s opening bar in the rondo-allegro finale was inarticulate, not crisp, and its echoes in the orchestra were no better, but this was the only disappointment in an otherwise stunning performance.

There have been a few sour comments about young Biss coasting too easily to success on the coattails of the distinguished musical family from which he descends: Raya Garbusova, for whom Samuel Barber composed his Cello Concerto, was his grandmother. His parents are violist-violinist Paul Biss and violinist Miriam Fried. These are certainly impressive antecedents, but in my opinion Jonathan Biss is very much his own musician, already at a very high level and here to stay.