For this Carnegie Hall concert, Jonathan Biss – stepping in for Leif Ove Andsnes who had to cancel his US tour because of an elbow injury – delivered virtuosic performances of four Piano Sonatas from several stages of Beethoven’s career. Biss has an especially close relationship with this music. Together with the Curtis Institute of Music he is offering a massive online course covering all the Sonatas and recording all thirty-two of them – for completion in 2020, the 250th-anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.
The fundamentally chronological program opened with a vigorous, direct and unfussy performance of the succinct and good-humored Opus 10/2. In the brief and superficially simple Opus 49/2 Biss blended grace with sparkling effervescence in the first movement. In the Minuet second he kept things very much alive, attending to every detail with rigor and intensity.
Biss’s extensive knowledge of and affection for Beethoven became especially evident in the venturesome yet gracious Opus 31/3, in which he delivered elegant, eloquent and vibrant playing and displayed amazing control as he maintained a near-breakneck pace in the Presto con fuoco Finale.
The second half was devoted to the extensive ‘Hammerklavier’. Biss’s playing was most impressive in the first movement, where his rapt concentration and sense of drama were particularly striking. Technique was never an issue. His account gave free rein to his superb technical abilities and acute dramatic sense. But for all of his compelling playing, the performance seemed disengaged, distant even, and came off as less than totally satisfying and thrilling.