There’s a spot near the end of the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3 when Jonathan Biss suspends time. Rests, duration of notes, the speed of phrases — they bear only the most general resemblance to what’s written. Biss isn’t one to take a lot of liberties, so when he does, you pay attention. Meaning is heightened. The pianist, who teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music, finds more than a few of these wisely individualistic moments in the latest release in his ongoing cycle of all 32 Beethoven sonatas. This one, the fifth, covers four sonatas spanning two decades.
Small lifts and hesitations add up to something wonderful in the Sonata No. 27 in E Minor. The piece has only two movements: the first, which grimaces and sighs; and a second movement of Schubertian elation (the spiritual cousin to the last movement of Schubert’s D. 959 A Major sonata). They are two masks of drama, to be sure, but Biss beautifully emphasizes complicating factors in a first movement that move between tragedy and cheer in breathtakingly short spans. He manages to convey in the last few bars a poignant ambivalence, a feeling not easy to capture.
Biss arranges the pieces on the disc so that the ending of one relates harmonically to the beginning of the next, which makes the listener, consciously or not, hear this as a single route through contiguous territory. Beethoven’s style evolves, but under the guiding hand of continuity.
The leap from the No. 27 to 28 is a big one, so condensed and economical is that later sonata. The recording catalogue is deep with decades of interpretation; if Pollini is your touchstone, you may find Biss’ way of hearing the Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Opus 101 no less fluid, but a good deal more tender. There is nothing percussive here — not in the march of the second movement, and certainly not in the manic final material. Clarity is the great strength. Thickets clear. Order reigns. Biss takes a famously complex movement, skips the varnish of self-importance, and makes a strong case for simplicity. At least, relatively speaking.