Review: Violinist Miriam Fried and pianist son Jonathan Biss at Kennedy Center

March 23, 2011

The performance of chamber music can be as intimate in tone as a family conversation across a dinner table. In four sonatas by Beethoven, violinist Miriam Fried and pianist Jonathan Biss carried out a fruitful series of such dialogues during their Fortas Chamber Music concert at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Tuesday night.

Playing a 1718 Stradivarius once owned by Louis Spohr, Fried fostered a burnished, contained sound that was more maternal radiance than raw power. While her technique may not be quite as formidable as when she won first prize at the Queen Elisabeth competition in Belgium in 1971, her remarkable phrasing gave a sense of poetry to Biss’s more foursquare approach. As an accompanist, Biss shadowed Fried with filial devotion, while she steadied his tendency to push the fast tempos. It was Fried who nursed and caressed the phrases of the Fourth Sonata’s slow movement, for example, and brought out the arpeggiated extensions, like ecstatic cartwheels, in the 10th Sonata’s opening movement.

Biss is perhaps the greater virtuoso, toddling around on the more playful themes of the Second Sonata, and his impatience sometimes affected the trueness of Fried’s intonation or made her tone a little scratchy. The facility of Biss’s fingers makes him skate over the keys rather than dig into them, and some of the runs in the sunny Fifth Sonata, known by the subtitle “Spring,” seemed a little glossed over and shallow. The two musicians, who happen to be mother and son, stayed with Beethoven for an encore, the slow movement of the Sixth Sonata in A.

— Charles T. Downey

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