Biss at Wigmore

I’m 47. I didn’t ‘go out on a Saddurday night’ until my second year sixth. I didn’t understand the appeal of pop music for a long while after my contemporaries (by which I mean years), and it wasn’t until I was 20 I understood why women needed to use more than one tampon a month.

I blame my parents for all of this. My father adored the music of Glen Miller (and latterly Syd Lawrence), my mother considered even the televised diaries of Adrian Mole risqué, and the family never really talked about bodily things either.

Similarly Beethoven. As a result my perception of Beethoven is misty. It’s shrouded in a cheap net curtain that diffuses the true image underneath.

There’s so much bollocks assumed about Beethoven. The tropes, trite phrases and cliches mask the detail. It is the detail in Beethoven’s music that yields the pleasure. If only we could trust ourselves and others to focus in on that detail.

Jonathan Biss’ Wigmore Hall recital pulled back a lot of that net curtain for me.

It wasn’t ‘on paper’ perfect. Sometimes the breakneck speed resulted in a momentary lack of clarity in the right hand. Sometimes I wanted to hear more of the gaps in between the semi quavers. And yet, it was terrifyingly taught and controlled. It wasn’t flabby around the edges by any means. It was a firework display.

Ten days of stomach flu had prompted a last minute change of programme. Biss shared this news with the audience before the second half. I’d argue it wasn’t necessary to be quite so transparent to explain at the beginning of the second half: a more cynical individual than I would describe such an act as an apology. Or better, ‘managing expectations’.

There really was no need. Biss is a consummate storyteller, pinning you against the wall with a statement he probably wasn’t aware he needed to make until an hour or so before the recital got underway. In that way these Beethoven sonatas were short stories or librettos all given a set, a cast, an orchestra and a conductor for a ‘flash’ production. Electrifying. Hutzpah. Gripping.

There were errors. Two. Maybe three. That feeling one gets when one thinks there might be an error was prevalent, but it did rather make it exhilarating.

The errors didn’t matter because the emotional connection between music, interpreter, and audience member had already been established. The errors triggered a sense of jeopardy, which in turn made us feel for him, and when he’d recovered, a sense of relief.

In that way Biss was captivating. Ridiculously fast (even when it said Andante). Sometimes it felt like it might even be out of control – on the brink of falling apart. But that still didn’t matter. Because at such a pace we saw Beethoven composition in a different way – dramatic statements, constantly shifting material, and relentless variations. And we had to cling on as we listened.

That is what live performance is all about. If only I could have learned that twenty years ago.

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