Last week, staying a couple of nights with friends in London, we heard a recital by Jonathan Biss, an unsmiling American pianist who acknowledged applause with his hand over his heart – as if pledging allegiance to the flag. He played two Beethoven sonatas, opus 10 no. 1 and opus 81a (Les Adieux), plus a Janacek sonata (From the Street).
I sort of know most Beethoven piano sonatas but beforehand I let Alfred Brendel refresh opus 10 for me. Les Adieux is famous and I tasted several versions on YouTube. The sonata’s opening bars consist of well separated notes and chords which must be made to hang together as a slow melody. Guiomar Novaes and Solomon managed this, Wilhelm Backhaus did not.
In further preparation I listened to Elias-Axel Pettersson play the Janacek in his final doctoral recital last year at Montreal University. I didn’t know the piece but he played with authority, especially the slow stuff. I emailed to see whether he got his doctorate. He said yes and I was glad.
Forward to Biss. Technically no problems but the opus 10 sounded too loud given its comparative simplicity. I’d have preferred a fortepiano. Facing those initial fragments in Les Adieux Biss avoided the problems by playing faster; legitimate but not as breathtaking. Biss’s Janacek was harsher than Pettersson’s but did it proud. Our friends also hearing the J for the first time liked it and that was good news.
But I was left feeling nerdish. Isn’t such preparation overdoing it? Like boning up on the dictionary before tackling Aldous Huxley. It’s only music. Elsewhere in the world people are really suffering – being denied sub-titled French movies.