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A Big Jewish Pianist With Unremarkable Hands

Jonathan Biss stops by Carnegie Hall on his way to recording the full cycle of 32 Beethoven sonatas

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Jonathan Biss, 2013. (Benjamin Ealovega)
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When Jonathan Biss went to Carnegie Hall for a rehearsal late last month, ahead of his 12th performance there, he discovered that backstage had been renovated. Initially he couldn’t find his way. Then, after reorienting himself, he stepped into the hall—the most prestigious venue in classical music; where Tchaikovsky gave its opening concert in 1891—and played through his entire recital program slowly and deliberately. The program had been selected with Biss’ characteristic precision and thoughtfulness, a process that began with two certainties: that he would play Beethoven, and that he would close with the “Waldstein,” written from 1803-4 and the first of the three notable sonatas of Beethoven’s so-called middle period. To juxtapose the bright, public “Waldstein,” Biss added Beethoven’s Sonata No. 27, Op. 90, a more introverted piece with two highly contrasting movements.

For the first half of the program, Biss chose Brahms’ “Klavierstücke,” selections from György Kurtág’s “Játékok” (Hungarian for “Games”), and the two nocturnes from Chopin’s Op. 62 and his “Polonaise-Fantasie.” Kurtág, a contemporary composer, is rooted in the past. The Brahms and Chopin were among the last pieces that each wrote. The fulcrum of the program was, then, a sense that there is almost no post-Beethoven composer who isn’t influenced by him.

The rehearsal lasted three hours, in part because Biss needed 45 minutes to adjust to the stage and the hall being five times bigger than any venue he’d recently played. Around 2 p.m., he consulted with the piano technician. Then, out of habit, he ate an embarrassingly big lunch, before heading back to his apartment and to bed.

In the past few years, Biss, who is 33, has strengthened the case that he can help extend the tradition of great Jewish classical pianists—from Vladimir Horowitz to Vladimir Ashkenazy, from Arthur Rubinstein to Emanuel Ax—into the 21st century. He has become publicly vibrant in the mainstream mold of few classical musicians, especially those who favor thoughtfulness and emotional interpretations over showmanship, bravado, and flashy repertoire. Biss has done this not just by continuing to book a full, international schedule of concerts and earning laudatory reviews in the New York Times and The New Yorker, but by embracing new technological outlets in publishing and education and by undertaking one of the most ambitious recording tasks for a modern pianist—all of which revolve around Beethoven. He has written two e-books (Beethoven’s Shadow, the first Kindle Single by a classical musician), and he has taught a wildly popular MOOC (massive open online course) on Beethoven’s sonatas. He has also recorded 10 of the sonatas, on his way to completing the full cycle of 32, having just released the latest installment, Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3, before his recent date at Carnegie Hall. Recording or performing the complete sonatas remains one of the most important and challenging achievements in classical music. As Biss knows, it’s a body of work that can be endlessly mined for meaning.

(Courtesy of Onyx Classics/Harmonia Mundi)

On the night of the concert, shortly after 8 p.m., Biss made what is known as the Carnegie Hall “long walk” from offstage to the centered, isolated piano. His shoulders hunched forward slightly, and one arm swung like a pendulum, while the other remained still. Wearing his shirt buttoned to the top, sans tie, and sporting a relatively new beard, grown out of laziness, he bowed to the five levels of the nearly packed hall.

Physically, Biss is an animated pianist, helpless, as musicians are, to his tics. (After hitting a certain sweat threshold, he frequently pushes up his slipping glasses.) During melodic passages, he tended to recline his torso and swivel his head, as if to nod, “No, this cannot be this beautiful”; this occurred repeatedly during the Brahms and the Chopin. In a capricious moment, such as the entire brief, sixth Kurtág selection “(… and round and round it goes),” he chased flurries of notes that were far from one another. The piece ended abruptly, with Biss’ face close to the keyboard. Half the audience members allowed themselves an amused laugh.

In the second half, the Sonata Op. 90—two movements requiring less than 15 minutes to play—felt like a warm-up, the sort of piece that is necessary, even if few people came to hear it, to prime the finale. So, when he reached the “Waldstein,” Biss attacked it, taking a brisk tempo. Applauding between a piece’s movements, rather than waiting for the entire piece to end, is a modern audience faux pas. But Biss played so energetically the audience couldn’t help itself; it burst into applause the moment he finished the Allegro con brio.

Upon striking the final chord of the third movement, Biss raised and held his arms half-mast, a restrained triumph, and the audience rose. For the encore, he did something he hadn’t tried before: He played the Intermezzo in B minor from the Brahms, the movement with which he’d opened the recital, bringing the concert full circle.

David Ludwig, an American composer, former classmate of Biss’, and now dean of Artistic Programs at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, had been sitting with Biss’ family and close friends in a first-tier box. A half hour after the show, he tweeted, from a New York City taxi: “Jonathan Biss just tore my heart out, warmed it up, and then put it back in. (In a good way).”

***

Earlier that week, at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, Biss sat drinking green tea, a folded copy of the Times wedged in his black strap briefcase. Jazz, which he loves listening to but has by his own admission no clue how to play, was the background music. He is slender, on a healthy diet (“Everything in moderation”) and an exercise regimen meant to withstand the rigor of frequent travel across many time zones (jogging and yoga at least five times per week). He wore relaxed jeans and a casual shirtsleeve button-up. Unlike some of the most famous hands in the history of classical piano—Rachmaninoff’s reach to a twelfth; Anton Rubinstein’s fat fingers, as wide as the white keys—his are unremarkable.

Biss was born in Bloomington, Ind., where his parents were professors at Indiana University, to a family of Jewish classical musicians. His mother, Miriam Fried, the Romanian-born Israeli violinist, won the Paganini International Competition in 1968 and came to the United States as a protégé of Isaac Stern. His father, Paul Biss, is a violinist, violist, and conductor whose own mother was the celebrated Russian cellist Raya Garbousova. Garbousova developed carpal tunnel syndrome around the time Jonathan was born, but he grew up with numberless testimonies to her musical prowess. Apparently, the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov praised her so highly when she was young that her father refused to repeat Glazunov’s words so as to prevent her from developing an ego. Years later, when Biss was cleaning out her house after his grandfather passed away, he found a note in which the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals called her “without a doubt the finest cellist I have ever heard.”

“This is a woman who played Ping-Pong with Horowitz,” Biss told me. “She knew everyone of that generation. She also read chamber music with Einstein. She complained that he played out of tune. I would think that’s not really the point.”

Raised in such a household, Biss was consumed by music. “It was a spoken language,” he said. “Before I could even play two notes, I felt it in my ears, my head, my mind, and my heart.” Once, when his father was conducting Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, Biss read the score, built the set out of cardboard boxes, created finger puppets, and acted out the entire thing, making his parents sit and watch. He was 6-and-a-half. Each summer, as a kid, he spent two months in Herzliya, visiting his mother’s entire family, descended from Hungarian Holocaust survivors who moved to Romania and then Israel.

Earlier that year, Biss had begun pianos lessons with Karen Taylor, a local teacher whose gift was imparting her enthusiasm for music onto eager young students. He learned his first Beethoven sonata at age 9 and, two years later, began studying with Evelyne Brancart, a Belgian pianist on faculty at Indiana. She trained him, Biss said, “very, very rigorously.” As they worked on an assortment of music, his ambition was often relegated to specific pieces, like Beethoven’s tempestuous “Appassionata” sonata, even if playing them meant maxing out his physical capabilities. He practiced incessantly, without being coaxed; oftentimes his mother would have to ask him to stop. At age 13, he won a competition to play Mendelssohn’s Concerto No. 1 in G minor with the Indianapolis Symphony. The opportunity—“to ride the sound of an orchestra,” as he called it—thrilled him. “From that point on,” he said, “my view was a little more specific in terms of wanting to be a performer.”

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A Big Jewish Pianist With Unremarkable Hands

Jonathan Biss stops by Carnegie Hall on his way to recording the full cycle of 32 Beethoven sonatas