Pianist Jonathan Biss features emotional vignettes in Schumann program

Jonathan Biss
Kansas City Star

By Libby Hanssen

Pianist Jonathan Biss tempered a highly emotional performance with a quiet and introverted stage presence, directing all his energies to the keyboard with no superfluous asides.

He is touring “Schumann: Under the Influence,” a project three years in the making that examines the works and influence of Robert Schumann, as well as that of his predecessors. Biss champions Schumann, advocating that he was a progressive artistic presence whose mental struggles historically overshadowed his compositional output.

Friday night’s concert at the Folly Theater, presented by Friends of Chamber Music, featured the second solo piano recital program for this project, a wide-reaching endeavor that includes chamber ensemble collaborations. This concert also included works by Mozart and Leoš Janácek.

Biss proved himself master of the miniature. Most of the evening’s pieces, with the exception of the Mozart selections, were published as cycles or in volumes, with each of the movements ranging in length from one to five minutes. Yet each portion had its own distinct sound world, and was succinctly if sometimes turbulently emotive.

The first half of the program combined Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke, op. 12” with selections from Janácek’s “On an Overgrown Path.”

The individual movements for both works are programmatically titled and Biss juxtaposed these sections, coupling similar thematic concepts, such as Schumann’s transparent and evocative “Des Abends” and Janácek’s “Our Evening,” with a wafting melody which briefly shifts to pounding, brambly chords, or comparing the delicate, insistent rhythms of “Warum?” to the stuttering, descending lines of “A Blown-Away Leaf.”

This was an inventive presentation, adding dimension to both pieces’ context, composed a lifetime apart.

The second half of the program opened with two small-scale piano selections from Mozart. Minuet in D major, K.355 was a lighter, short piece, but the Adagio in b minor, K.540 was a strenuous work, written in a darker time in Mozart’s life. Biss played it with expressive empathy, molding space around each emotional shift, with an almost languorous, yielding approach.

He ended the concert with “Davidsbündlertänze, op. 6,” arguably one of Schumann’s masterworks and a fine example of both his compositional vision and mercurial emotional range. It was written not only as a musical manifesto, but also as a romantic gesture to woo Clara Wieck, his future wife.

The work is less formally structured, based loosely on dance forms. Thematic motives ranged wildly through the piece and turned from vicious to pensive, lively to impatient, requiring Biss to channel multiple personalities. He paused minimally between the movements for a thrilling rendition, gently addressing the final closing tones, somberly genuine.