One of the most thoughtful pianists of the younger generation, Jonathan Biss returns to Meany Center at UW on Dec. 10 for a solo recital devoted to composers’ late-in-life musings.
At the advanced age of 36, Jonathan Biss finds himself fascinated by “late style” — the manner of expression an artist adopts as the end of life approaches.
It’s not such a paradox when you consider the pianist has distinguished himself as a deeply reflective interpreter who seems wise beyond his years. Biss’ attitude represents the polar opposite of impatient consumerism, of art-as-sensationalizing-clickbait.
“Over time, I began noticing that a disproportionate number of the pieces I love and am drawn to by many different composers comes from late in life,” Biss explained during a recent phone interview while on tour in London.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, Meany Center, University of Washington; tickets from $40 (meanycenter.org).
The program he has designed for his upcoming solo recital at Meany Center for the Performing Arts (Dec. 10) will explore the late styles of Beethoven, Brahms and the contemporary Hungarian composer György Kurtág (who is still at work at age 90). Throughout the current season, in fact, Biss is also partnering with the Brentano String Quartet and tenor Mark Padmore in a series of programs devoted to this phenomenon of “last words” in music.
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On Dec. 9, the day before his solo recital, Biss will also partner with the UW Symphony and conductor David Rahbee in a program including Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto.
“I began to see how different these late works can be from one composer to another. Both Beethoven and Brahms may express death thoughts, but they do it so differently,” Biss says. In the second movement of Beethoven’s final piano sonata, Op. 111, for example, “the death is peaceful,” while in Brahms’ Op. 118 series of short piano pieces you encounter music that is “desperate, without a hint of acceptance. So in a sense they are at opposite ends of the spectrum.”
The pianist adds that, by its nature, a good recital program will feature rich contrasts, “but in this case they are extreme — and telling.” Along with thoughts of leave-taking, late style is sometimes associated with a kind of distillation down to what matters most. “Brahms and Kurtág have in common a kind of concentrated intensity, though beyond that they are so different from one another.”
Biss says the excerpts from Kurtág’s ongoing collection of piano pieces “Játékok” (“Games”) he will play are “super-concentrated. He tries to pack as much information into as few notes as possible.” But Beethoven finds a different way to distill the essence of what’s meaningful in the last movement of Op. 111, which Biss sees as a visionary expansiveness. “Contrasts always interest me the most.”
Another contrast frames the entire program: as a counterpart to the late Beethoven Op. 111, Biss will perform the Op. 7 Piano Sonata No. 4, an unusually long sonata written when the composer was 25 and just starting to try to establish himself in Vienna. From early to late, “the language evolves almost beyond recognition, but the overpowering personality is the same. The way Beethoven could suspend time in the late work — a quality that is almost unique to him — is already there in Op. 7.”
Biss was raised in a musical family in Bloomington, Ind. Both parents are violinists, and his grandmother Raya Garbousova (who left the Soviet Union in 1925) was a legendary cellist for whom Samuel Barber wrote a concerto. His own musicianship has been widely praised for its balance of intelligence and passion. And it’s a tricky balance to strive for, particularly when you’ve acquired a reputation as a scholarly thinker in addition to performing.
Like Robert Schumann — yet another composer for whom he has shown profound affinity — Biss is also gifted at articulating his ideas about music in words. His preoccupation with Beethoven, whose complete solo sonatas the pianist is recording, extends to a popular online course on the piano sonatas. Biss has published a lengthy essay on the composer, “Beethoven’s Shadow,” as a Kindle Single, and he plans to return to that format to share his ideas about late style in the coming year.
Somehow Biss manages all this while pursuing a relentlessly active touring schedule. He says he especially looks forward to returning to Meany Hall: “I play a lot of music that requires an audience to concentrate. Whenever you get that, you think, ‘I really want to go back there.’ ”