Vaughan Williams: The Lark
Concerto in a minor Op. 54
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D
major Op. 73
Austin Symphony Orchestra/Peter
Long Center for the Performing Arts
I have been spending
a lot of time lately with Jonathan Biss – not the man himself, but his website.
Mr. Biss is a 33-year-old American pianist of great distinction who also writes
well about music.
Biss has been particularly
eloquent on the subjects of Beethoven and Schumann. He is recording all the
Beethoven sonatas and has written a book (Beethoven’s Shadow) about the composer. Over the 2012-2013 season, Biss
devoted much of his time to the life and music of Robert Schumann, presenting a
series of 30 concerts under the title Schumann: Under the Influence and in many different cities around the world. Mr. Biss
knows his Schumann and it was a special pleasure to hear him play his music in
Austin this week with Maestro Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony (ASO).
The purpose of this
program, titled Schumann: Under the
Influence was not, in spite of the provocative title, to show how
Schumann’s music was affected by the composer’s drug addition. Schumann
suffered from increasingly debilitating mental illness throughout his life, but
as far as we know, drugs had nothing to do with it.
Mr. Biss’ goal with
this program was to illustrate how much Schumann was influenced by composers
who had come before, and to show that Schumann himself had a strong influence
on many composers who followed him. Biss himself feels that Schumann influenced
him to become the musician he is today, and has written about how he came to
identify with the inner spirit of Schumann’s music, and about how this music
became for him the expression of his own soul.
These are complex
matters not easily summarized in a sentence or two; for the listener, it comes
down to Biss identifying strongly with Schumann and his music and urging
listeners to try to do the same. If they do, he says, they will be richly rewarded.
“I wanted,” he states, “to show Schumann’s music exactly as it is – deeply
poetic, fragile, obsessive, evocative, whimsical, internal.”
Biss and Schumann Perfectly in Sync
In his performance of
Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the Austin Symphony this week, Biss revealed all
these qualities in the music, and more. After reading what he has to say about
Schumann, one might have expected a very personal performance from Biss,
perhaps quite different from any we have heard before, but that was not the
case. Biss ‘played it straight’, as it were, showing great respect for the
But that is exactly
the point. What is ‘personal’ in Schumann’s music is not in what the performer
can add to it; it’s already in the notes, if one takes the trouble to understand
them. No need, for example, to make the opening theme more noble than it
already is – it’s plenty noble enough, if it is played as Mr. Biss played it,
with beautiful tone and strength but without exaggeration.
The slow movement
becomes pedantic and heavy-handed if played too slowly; after all, Schumann
called it an Intermezzo and gave it the tempo marking ‘Andantino grazioso.’ It
is meant to be charming, not angst-ridden. In the last movement too, the main
theme is playful enough without trying to make it ‘slip on a banana peel’
funny. Biss found exactly the right tempo and spirit for each of the three
After hearing Mr.
Biss play the Schumann concerto, I was not surprised to read that Alfred Cortot
was one of the pianists of the past he most admired. Cortot never tried to beat
the piano to a pulp; on the contrary, he always strove for a singing tone and a
beauty of line in everything he played. So too, Jonathan Biss.
Bay/ASO Build a Bold and Beautiful
came Brahms Symphony No. 2 in a performance that was very much on the same
level as the Schumann we had just heard. If Peter Bay and the ASO were superbly
attentive to Jonathan Biss in the Schumann, they held their focus equally well from
beginning to end in this glorious Brahms symphony. Bay, like Biss, has always
shown respect for the score and avoided exaggeration. These proclivities in
themselves are not sufficient to guarantee memorable music-making, but on this
occasion they were coupled with beauty of phrasing and an impressive ability to
Brahms D major
symphony is often characterized as being ‘sunny’ and ‘happy,’ and it does have
these qualities, but it also has moments of melancholy, and the excitement of
the last movement is one of the great moments in orchestral literature; when
the three trombones pile their descending scales on top of each other, followed
by spectacular finishing fanfares in the trumpets and horns, one literally
wants to jump for joy. This performance captured this great moment brilliantly.
One of the challenges
of conducting the last movement of the Brahms D major symphony is determining how
to capture the exuberance of this great finish without making the rest of the
movement sound rushed and on the verge of falling apart. Brahms gives the
movement the tempo marking ‘Allegro con spirito’. That’s it. But did he really
want the conductor to maintain the same tempo from beginning to end? I don’t
think so; rather, he knew that a good conductor would sense when to slow down
and when to speed up - he didn’t need to put all these markings in his score. This
musical intuition is what made Fürtwangler’s Brahms performances so remarkable;
he let the music tell him when to vary the tempo. To put it another way -
metronomes make poor conductors.
Peter Bay began the
last movement at a very steady tempo, which allowed his musicians to put all
the notes in the right places and to execute the marvelous syncopations with
some exactitude. It is amazing how many performances of this piece are mere
approximations in this respect. Then, when he got to the coda, Bay let the
music decide the tempo. This is liftoff time and only a pedantic conductor would
dare to hold the orchestra back at this point. The increase in tempo is not
huge, but it’s enough to propel the music forward toward a triumphant
conclusion; “Bravo” to Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony for making it work the
way it should.
For something more…
Next month (March),
Mr. Biss repeats his five-week Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Beethoven’s
Piano Sonatas. This innovative presentation is a partnership between the Curtis
Institute of Music and Coursera. More than 10,000 people are already on the waiting
list! If you are not familiar with this imaginative educational initiative, check it out at here.
Labels: Austin Symphony Orchestra, brahms, Concert_Review, Johnathan Biss, klassische Musik, Long Center, musica classica, musique classique, Peter Bay, piano, Schumann, クラシック音楽, 古典音乐, 古典音樂