Pianist Jonathan Biss gave a recital Sunday afternoon at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the 42nd International Festival of Chamber Music.
The program was interesting and very varied and allowed Biss to show off his fluid and graceful technique, his poetic touch and his obvious preference and ability to control dynamic levels from bare whispers to only a few levels about that. Rarely did he opt to play really loud.
He was most successful in several selections from Gyorgy Kurtag’s eight volumes of “Jatekok” (“Games”), which are miniature gestures with some only a few bars to those perhaps a half a page of music. They included “Flowers in the Fall,” “Telephone Numbers of Your Loved Ones,” “Homage to Schubert” and “Farewell S.W.”
Biss told the large crowd that Kurtag was a “towering figure ... a great composer and interpreter of old music.” The little pieces ranged from spare spreads of notes with no tonal center to tone clusters to those with a handful of notes and others dramatic with fast-moving scales. Each produced a bit of atmosphere and even some humorous moments. Biss had a laser eye to each of the pieces’ centers to find meaning. It’s no wonder he’s received praise for his recordings of some of these works.
Without a pause, he immediately segued into Chopin’s Nocturne No. 1 in B Major, which was a magical transition. Biss’ tender stroking, clean technique and good sense of urgency were first rate.
But his dreamy personal style, which had been very prevalent in Brahms’ three Intermezzos of Op. 119 (1892) and his Rhapsodie in E-flat Major, did not suit Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2 in E Major nor his Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat Major (1846). The long pauses between phrases or segments, the blurred technical passages from too much pedal, the long drawn out phrases out of tempo and the romantic level of dynamics made the music sound too much of an individual statement rather than a musical choice. That style prevailed no matter who the composer was.
It even appeared, albeit a bit less, in Beethoven’s Sonata in E minor, Op. 90 (1814) and his Sonata in C Major, Op. 53 (“Waldstein”) (1804). Fortunately, in the “Waldstein,” Biss let more of the music do the talking to achieve some real excitement and gusto.