Angular rhythms, harmonic oddities

Pianist Jonathan Biss. JIMMY KATZ
Pianist Jonathan Biss. JIMMY KATZ

Distinctiveness of Schumann captured by Jonathan Biss.

Posted: March 08, 2013

A lot of pianists play Schumann while dreaming of other composers. What Jonathan Biss knows, however, and what he put into practice Wednesday night at the Perelman Theater, is the idea that Schumann is like no one else. To emphasize the topographical similarities to Schubert or Beethoven would be to round off Schumann's angular rhythms or not heed the slippery beauty of his harmonic oddities. Schumann is not Liszt with a little rose water sprinkled on top.

The composer's Davidsbündlertänze were played earlier this season in another Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert, and yet Biss' way with it would not have worn out its welcome if he had played it twice more. Biss uses a slight rubato, or not. He keeps his firepower in check, and then he doesn't. Visualists in the audience, just look away - the body language is that of a clockmaker. But has anyone ever portrayed Florestan and Eusebius in a more fevered conflict than the way Biss whipped up the penultimate movement, "As if from afar," before letting it collapse into a shattered peace?

As if to argue for similarly underestimated complexities, Biss played Mozart's Minuet in D. Major, K. 355 and the Adagio in B Minor, K. 540, stressing dissonances and other upsets while never abandoning his limpid tone.

The major feat of the evening, however, was a first half of the program that was essentially a mash-up: mixing movements from Schumann's Fantasiestücke, Opus 12 with Janácek's On an Overgrown Path. Biss didn't explain his intentions, at least verbally. Contrasts or similarities? Heretofore undiscovered sympathies? A compositional father-son relationship? The experience did not become an overly clever pastiche, but rather acted as an extremely focused light cast upon unlikely similarities.

Some were as superficial as a love for nature or ambivalent emotion. But in some spots you heard, if not actual shared phrases, then perhaps a span of a few notes in which Janácek seemed to paraphrase Schumann. At one point you heard Janácek growing wilder and happier and more out of control and you began to think - ah, no. No one can match Schumann at his most ecstatic.


Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.

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