At first, it sounded as if Jonathan Biss had more technique than poetry in his arsenal. The pianist opened his recital at the Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., on Friday with a performance of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor, K. 457, that was very fast, very determined and not very shapely — the sort of reading one could expect from someone much younger and inexperienced. But what he followed up with, a searching, thoughtful exploration of Schoenberg’s “Sechs Kleine Klavierstucke,” Op. 19, revealed not only a poetic mind but a philosophical one as well. These miniatures, Schoenberg’s concise, atonal answer to opulently conservative romanticism, demand close attention to every note, and Biss controlled weight, touch and attack with finesse.
The Schoenberg seemed to unlock Biss’s poetic reserves, because the rest of the program — Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 15 in F, K. 533/498, and Schumann’s romantic fantasy, “Kreisleriana,” Op. 18 — were shaped and colored elegantly. The Mozart, lighthearted and, at times, operatic, reveled in transparency. Its deceptively simply Rondo finale, sometimes wandering off into unexpected keys, sounded crisp under Biss’s light touch, and he found a lovely meditative legato for the Andante.
The Schumann is one of the supreme tests of a pianist’s poetic chops. Mirroring the composer’s mercurial emotional state, light and dark trip over each other’s heels throughout its eight movements. Biss let the music breathe, giving moments of sadness and regret time to linger but urging on the spurts of frenzied energy with sometimes frantic intensity.
Biss, who has been named the first artistic adviser for chamber music at the Barns at Wolf Trap, has curated this season’s nine-concert chamber music series, with this recital as its kickoff.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.