Pianist Jonathan Biss brings needed vitality to performances with Cleveland Orchestra, Leon Fleisher

Jonathan Biss
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

Thank goodness for Jonathan Biss.

Not only did the pianist rescue the Cleveland Orchestra’s program Thursday night at Severance Hall, filling in for an ailing Mitsuko Uchida. He also rescued the performance, injecting vitality where it was needed sorely.

Not that conductor Leon Fleisher didn’t contribute. On the contrary. Leading from a chair on the podium, the pianist-maestro with a glorious history in Cleveland dating back to George Szell brought clarity and depth of feeling to every bar of Beethoven and Mendelssohn he oversaw.

But Fleisher also had a frustrating tendency to adopt ponderously slow tempos, to turn pages of joy and grandeur into bouts of cerebral introspection. Thus was Biss’ sparkling work in two Beethoven Piano Concertos doubly welcome.

The need for a counterweight was clear from the outset, from Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture. Even as he shone light on the score’s magnificent inner workings, the conductor stripped the music of most of its panoramic sweep by insisting on muted colors and a plodding pace. Rarely if ever has Mendelssohn sounded so heavy.

More in that vein might have been in store Thursday in Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3, had it not been for Biss. In both cases, Fleisher commenced by dragging the orchestra through the opening measures, evincing an unusual interpretation of the directive “con brio.”

Happily, however, the soloist had something else in mind. Entering both works in a vivacious mood, the pianist, last heard here playing Mozart in November 2011, lit a spark in the ensemble and brought off scenes of crisp, dynamic action. His account of the Third Concerto’s cadenza was as fiery as any in recent memory.

The Rondos of both concertos also benefited from the pianist’s presence. There again, as in the opening movements, Biss dove right in with gusto, leading his partners in zesty, gleeful performances entirely in keeping with the spirit of the music.

As for the slow movements, consider them compromises. Fleisher stretched them out to their durational limits, maximizing their emotional potential, but it was Biss and the orchestra who filled the space so sublimely, using the time to craft reveries of transcendent beauty.

One can only imagine what Uchida, renowned here for her fresh, light readings of Mozart, would have made of Beethoven in collaboration with Fleisher. One also hopes the injury that held her back this week is truly minor, and won’t derail her scheduled appearances in April.

But about Biss’ work on her behalf, there can be no complaints. May he return next time as the regularly scheduled guest.