First PCMS 'Departure' concert sets a high bar for the rest

Jonathan Biss
Philadelphia Inquirer

A mini-series that explores "late style"

By Peter Dobrin

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society has never suffered from an ambition deficit, unless you think it’s somehow not enough to simply present 60 or so extremely meaningful encounters per year with high-grade string quartets, lieder artists, and pianists.

Still, PCMS has focused its imagination a bit with its Departure & Discovery festival, which opened Thursday night at the Perelman Theater. The series within a series, whose next concert is March 6, examines the repertoire for characteristics of “late style” -- the idea that composers had something special to say late in life.

It was heartening to hear Biss, one of the creative forces behind this festival, playing Beethoven’s Opus 111 in slightly uncharacteristic form, taking more chances than usual in pursuit of an interpretive truth. The first movement drew blood. Biss not only emphasized its unsettled character, but he himself seemed unsettled, as well.

And, in a way, the second movement was no less unhinged. Biss maintained the feeling that this music could go anywhere at any point, despite being tethered to a theme. In the fantastical final minutes, Biss raised the music from beating to fluttering to a euphoric manic surge that could only be described as pure spirit. After this, there is nothing more to be said, and Biss wisely chose not to say it. There was no encore. 

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