A big Jewish pianist with unremarkable hands

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.

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