Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Beethovian ambitions


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Beethoven is having a good spring season. There are live performances continuing at Davies Symphony Hall with the San Francisco Symphony and Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt (providing a great lead-in to the Beethoven Project in May) and on disc or download with the orchestra's recent issue of the Symphony No. 9 with Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas on the podium. Ambitious young pianist Jonathan Biss has also just released the second in his projected series of the complete Piano Sonatas.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Vol. 2; Nos. 4, 14, "Moonlight," 24, Fantasy in G minor; Jonathan Biss, piano (ONYX)

Jonathan Biss has embarked on recording the Beethoven sonatas complete on nine discs. While he plans a measured climb up Mt. Everest, he is still one of the youngest to make the attempt, even if Daniel Barenboim got the jump on him many years ago, at a mere 24. There isn't much point in dwelling on age when maturity counts most, and enthusiastic audiences have been aware of Biss and his uncommon musical intelligence (not to mention technical prowess) ever since he made his local solo debut at 26.

With his latest disc (and MP3 download), Biss displays his strategy in not ordering the repertoire chronologically. He programs works that balance one another and sound complementary regardless of their order and opus numbers. It makes a nicely contrasted listening experience, and while most listeners will probably gravitate to the famous Sonata No. 14 "Moonlight" at the heart of the program, I have already returned to the opening Sonata No. 4, with satisfying discoveries and insights every time.

Biss has written an eBook or Kindle single called Beethoven's Shadow that goes on at length about his philosophy in approaching the daunting composer, and includes interesting asides about historic interpreters, attitudes about studio recording and some insights passed on by his teacher Leon Fleisher (who was a student of the fabled Artur Schnabel). The legacy of such celebrated interpreters weighs heavily on anyone facing the challenge, but Biss is ready. His clear-eyed service to the composer, coupled with his dizzying skill, is off to a promising start.

He may have to overcome detractors with more passionate and risky playing as the cycle progresses, but for now he is living up to expectation, and it's easy to imagine his interpretations (beautifully recorded) becoming preferred library editions. We all have our favorites, usually the ones we grew up on. My allegiance has always been with Wilhelm Kempff, and I find it ironic that critics have often said he wasn't gutsy enough. What he demonstrated most was a sense of rhythm and narrative flow, and Biss shares that innate gift. He also has some of Kempff's unerring taste and elegance.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125; Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony Chorus and Orchestra (SFS Media SACD)

The San Francisco Symphony ended the centennial season last June with wonderfully warm and suitably jubilant performances of the Beethoven Ninth. They were memorably happy occasions that really gave special meaning to the great concluding Finale: "Ode to Joy." Now the experience has been captured live on a disc that adds to the group's growing discography of Beethoven performances.

Previous SFS Beethoven releases have appeared more dutiful than inspiring. The latest offering is another story altogether. An exploration of Beethoven's foothills begins with the mysterious and evocative opening, and ends by scaling the heights of the mountainous Finale. The gait is leisurely, with expertly detailed playing. The middle movements are more controlled. There is impetus but also sweetness in the air, and the orchestra responds (especially the strings) with affection.

By the time the Finale comes we can forgive tenor William Burden for sounding so gurgly at his first entrance and concentrate more on the other singers: Erin Wall, Kendall Gladen and Nathan Berg. Most of all we can savor the strength and accuracy of Ragnar Bohlin's SFS Chorus. As an entry into a very crowded field, this Beethoven Ninth has something fresh and interesting to offer.

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