Biss effortlessly, memorably captures Schumann
The piano only seems like a straightforward machine, and the young American pianist Jonathan Biss demonstrates a control over its quirky but fabulous workings that is rather astonishing. When he played Robert Schumann's unconventional, monumental "Kreisleriana" at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday, that technique was fully in service of the music, and the results were memorable.
Biss took the galloping triplets of the opening terrifically fast -- Schumann's intricate cross-accents were drowned in a storm of virtuosity -- but the torrent effectively introduced the expansive waltz of the second movement. Biss shaded his organ-deep sound to perfection, each contrapuntal voice singing with eloquent independence. The scherzo-like fifth movement tripped with feline stealth, the seventh with demonic perpetual motion. In the finale, an obsessive rhythm that slips in, crests, and then dissipates like smoke, Biss was so true to the poetry of Schumann's enigmatic ending that even those who knew the work second-guessed their initial applause.
The concert opened with Schumann's "Arabeske" (Op. 18). Biss draped the main theme in cascades of opulent arpeggios, while using the contrasting sections to gradually draw out Schumann's eccentricities. The ending, though, one of Schumann's most miraculous -- a distant, suspended melody that comes without warning -- was prosaically underlined, one of the few times it felt as if Biss were imposing an idea rather than letting the music flow through him.
The Op. 27 Variations of Anton Webern followed. Schumann and Webern are an inspired pair on paper: two musical extremists who tempered their audacity with classical discipline. Webern composed whole worlds into each of his sparse, concentrated phrases, but this performance used a microscope where a telescope was needed: The precisely magnified details never coalesced into a lyrical whole.
Mozart's F Major Sonata (K. 533/494) seemed to wander in from another program, but was welcome nonetheless. Biss disappeared behind the music with refined interpretation and passage work of wondrous consistency, even when frequently forgoing the pedal's safety net.
The encore was more Mozart, the slow movement of the Sonata in C Major (K. 330), the composer at his most naively simple and, at the same time, poignantly wise. Biss effortlessly communicated both sides. Often, the most accomplished art seems like no art at all.