March 17, 2013
Jonathan Biss Illuminates Schumann
Robert Schumann is an often-misunderstood composer. From his famous torrential romance with Clara, to the last two years of his life in an asylum, his volatile existence may have been viewed with suspicion, and his work can confound musicians even today. While his output during his relatively short life was quite substantial, the majority of his work output has remained outside the mainstream.
Pianist Jonathan Biss has been on a season-long endeavor to set the record straight. He has put together an entire season dedicated to Schumann’s work, within the context of his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. He accomplished this by pairing Schumann’s works with others that either influenced Schumann (the Fantasie, Op. 17, versus Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98) or that were influenced by Schumann (Janáček’s On the Overgrown Path). By doing so, Biss has illustrated Schumann’s influential presence, even if his writing may have been uneven and volatile at times.
At his Sunday recital at Herbst Theatre, presented by San Francisco Performances, Biss went further than merely paring Schumann’s works with those of different composers. Here, Biss daringly interspersed Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, a series of eight miniatures, with selections from Janáček’s On the Overgrown Path, itself a collection of 15 miniatures. After the indulgently dreamy Des Abends (In the evening), Biss borrowed the opening piece from Janáček: Naše večery (Our evenings), which possessed a darker character.
Several pieces later, Dobrou Noc! (Good night!) preceded In der Nacht (In the night), which added a further dimension to the quandary between Florestan and Eusebius — two imaginary characters that Schumann created to represent his two “sides,” and which appear in Schumann’s other compositions, as well as in his critical writings. Happily, the pieces meshed well together tonally, with the key of D-flat Major continuing predominantly through the first five selections, and the rest loosely gathered around F Minor and its relative and parallel keys, with Fabel and Dobrou Noc! in the now seemingly strange key of C Major.
Biss has illustrated Schumann’s influential presence, even if his writing may have been uneven and volatile at times.
As a result, it was not hard to imagine reflections of Schumann’s oeuvres on Janáček’s. The comparisons allowed for a more-contemplative exploration of Schumann’s frankly bipolar extremes. Then there was the luxury of letting the extremes settle and sink into the audience’s mind. Perhaps that is why it wasn’t quite the restless Schumann I’ve come to love, so I was left wanting a little more at the end of In der Nacht and Traumes Wirren (Dream Confusion). I felt I truly wanted to experience that near-insane, adrenaline rush.
Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6, in the second half of the program, stood well on its own. Despite being a collection of as many as 18 miniature in 30 minutes, Biss blew away the notion that Schumann’s music lacked large-scale architecture. Each of the pieces was carved meticulously, with an intense ardor for details, and with calculated precision.
Happily, the pieces meshed well together tonally.
The overall macrostructure was well supported by the microstructure, and every vignette, every phrase, and every note were placed with confidence and determination. Rather than being a collection of fluffy characteristic pieces, Biss seared vivid images of many different emotional states, episodes, and laughter onto a single, cohesive canvas.
By contrast, Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata, Op. 1, seemed too far a jump from Schumann’s world. Still, Biss navigated the work with a tonal clarity that betrayed its extraordinary complexity, all done with bold strokes. Yet the dense and intricate layers, composed of short fragments introduced in the opening measures, were not always distinct. Without the same level of details in its microstructure that was lavished on Davidsbündlertänze, the unipolar character of both the piece and the composer, drowned in its obsessive anguish and regrets, seemed obscured at times.
Biss offered one encore: the last of Gesänge der Frühe (Morning songs), Op. 133, as if to welcome a new dawn after the tumultuous nightmare that Schumann must have been experiencing. It, too, offered a clear counterpoint to the Berg Sonata in its simplicity, particularly since it was composed in the relative major key of the Berg Sonata.
Ken Iisaka is a North Bay pianist.
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