Review: SPCO, Biss bond over Beethoven

Jonathan Biss
Pioneer Press

It happened in Mahtomedi. It was during intermission of a concert last Sunday afternoon at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church that the musicians of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra found out that they had just won the Grammy for "Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance."

Yes, these are good days for the SPCO. In addition to inventive programming like the Schubert mash-up with Renaissance and modern music that won them a Grammy, the orchestra is cultivating all sorts of intriguing collaborations. And not just with the soloists and creative curators who hold the title of "artistic partner." Pianist Jonathan Biss isn't on that list, and yet he's become such a frequent visitor that his chemistry with the SPCO musicians has become something special.

Take, for example, Thursday's early-evening "Happy Hour" concert at St. Paul's Ordway Concert Hall. The abbreviated program seemed to liberate Biss and the SPCO to really throw themselves full force into Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano Concerto, resulting in one of the strongest interpretations of the work that I've encountered in concert. Full of energy, imagination and impeccable precision, it was Beethoven with just the right balance of calm and vigor, managing to be explosive one moment and contemplative the next, yet with nary a mood shift too abrupt. This was smoothness without sacrificing an ounce of oomph.

Pianist Biss has been soloing with the SPCO with relative regularity since last decade, and Thursday's concert afforded me the opportunity to stop and appreciate how the relationship between them has flowered. The performance of Beethoven's Fifth and final Piano Concerto displayed how their creative bond has deepened, as well as what a nuanced and complex player Biss has become. He was both powerful and subtle, flashy and contemplative, thunderous explosions smoothly segueing into velvety beauty, particularly on the long, involving opening Allegro.

While the ensuing Adagio sang out splendidly with one of the loveliest melodies to flow from Beethoven's pen, it was during the finale that Biss and the SPCO reached maximum catharsis. The Rondo galloped gallantly yet featured several unexpectedly soft touches, like a whispered iteration of the opening theme and closing strains in which Biss and timpanist Alex Wadner sounded like two engines slowing to a stop.

It's a big weekend of Beethoven for Biss, what with two performances of the composer's Second Concerto on Friday and a return to the "Emperor" (plus the composer's Sonata No. 5) on Saturday. But nothing like next weekend in Berkeley, California, when he and the SPCO will perform Beethoven's Second, Fourth and Fifth Concertos (plus concertos by Timo Andres and Salvatore Sciarrino) over the course of three concerts. If their collaborations are this good now, I can only imagine what heights they'll soon reach.

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