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Music Review

Jonathan Biss reveals Schumann’s influence


Jonathan Biss approaches the music of Robert Schumann as, literally, a multimedia project. The pianist’s Celebrity Series recital at Jordan Hall on Friday was called “Under the Influence,” a title echoed by a long essay on Schumann that Biss published as a Kindle Single last year. The program placed Schumann alongside other composers with intersecting manners. The concert was the first of two: Biss returns on April 12 with the Elias String Quartet to further the investigation by means of chamber music. Every angle, every frame, every witness is another medium through which Schumann’s spirit might be contacted.

In his writing, Biss has emphasized Schumann’s knack for seeming psychological confession, making the listener feel that the composer’s inner life has been revealed. “The part of each of us that is well and truly alone,” he notes, “when Schumann writes in his musical diary, that is what he is addressing, without equivocation and without varnish.” But the themes on Friday’s concert were also extroverted and social, tracing Schumann’s influence by mingling it with its historical reverberations. On the first half, Biss interspersed Schumann’s Op. 12 “Fantasiestücke” with five movements drawn from Leos Janacek’s “On an Overgrown Path,” the early-20th-century Czech-accented miniatures a nifty, near-seamless extension of Schumann’s concentrated 19th-century-Romantic swatches.


Biss’s playing exalts control. His touch is crisp but dynamically precise; every layer of every texture is both clear and exquisitely shaped. For much of the first half, there was a sense of compensatory restraint, but in the unusually fraught nocturne of Schumann’s “In der Nacht,” power began to course as well.

The energy continued past intermission into Alban Berg’s Op. 1 Sonata, edge-of-atonality expressionism given a stunning, articulate intensity. Where Janacek was congruent, Berg was a reversed reflection, especially in comparison with Schumann’s Op. 9 “Davidsbündlertänze.” Berg’s music is fugitive, barely getting through an idea before it begins to morph and mutate; but Schumann fairly wallows in his ideas, lingering in their midst at happily intemperate length. Biss’s control was especially beneficial here, Schumann’s moods sustained with focused opulence.


The virtuosic demands in the “Davidsbündlertänze” rise to a barrage, but the cycle ends in precarious gentleness — a mood reaffirmed by Biss’s encore, the final movement of Schumann’s final piano work, “Gesang der Frühe,” a contemplative chorale embroidered with a ribbon of antsy sixteenth notes. Even in repose, Schumann’s music is balanced on a wire.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@