Entertainment » Music

Jonathan Biss: Man on a Mission

by Philip Campbell
Tuesday Apr 9, 2013

Pianist Jonathan Biss and the Elias String Quartet concluded a series of concerts for San Francisco Performances with a beautifully realized program ingeniously designed for "Schumann: Under the Influence." Biss is a man on a mission to inform listeners and historians of Robert Schumann's unique importance to music, and defend him against the often dismissive attitude of critics throughout the ages.

With concerts, recordings, interviews and an appealingly passionate e-booklet (available as a Kindle download), Biss makes a strong personal case for a composer known and perhaps loved best for his own capability in expressing the deepest of personal thoughts and emotions. For myself, there is little need to enforce a lifelong love of Schumann's peculiar genius. Having an intelligent advocate articulate and talented as Biss comes as a special blessing, even if only to produce the current but all-too-brief concentration of illuminating programs and recordings.

Being "Under the Influence" was immediately apparent during the first half of the recent concert. Opening with three Fantasias by English composer Henry Purcell (generally considered the first great English composer), the Elias String Quartet set in motion the underlying theme of the evening. The development and harmony of musical expression that begins with individual instrumental voices figured strongly in all of the works on the bill.

The Fantasias are subtly dissonant and reflective pieces built on a ground of sturdy melody. The dark and intense performance by the Elias at first seemed a rather sober-sided and uninspiring opening for a first half that was finally rounded off by a relatively light-hearted reading of Schumann's String Quartet in A minor, Opus 41, No. 1. Written as one of the composer's few chamber works without piano, the Quartet in A minor afforded some challenges of musical exploration when separated from his own signature instrument.

I may have wanted Biss and his pianistic presence onstage a bit earlier, but the Elias String Quartet proved, in my first introduction to them, to be an engaging and satisfying group, awfully serious in their presentation, but appealing nonetheless. The members of the young Quartet, founded in England in 1998, are Sara Bitlloch, violin; Donald Grant, violin; Martin Saving, viola; and Marie Bitlloch, cello. Their clear understanding and technical mastery of Schumann's imaginative response to the compositional challenge of the A minor quartet proved invigorating.

The biggest surprise of the evening followed after intermission. Composer and pianist Timo (short for Timothy) Andres comes from Palo Alto, CA, lives in Brooklyn, NY, and is under 30 years old. I remember when we didn't trust anyone over 30, but decades past such arrogant thinking, I now confess to a little ageism in the other direction. Thankfully, Andres breaks any such prejudice from me upon first hearing. He had me at "Hello" with the very first notes of his Piano Quintet, receiving its world premiere this year and commissioned by Wigmore Hall, San Francisco Performances, Carnegie Hall and Het Concertgebouw Amsterdam. That is a pretty hefty group of supporters, but it appears Andres is more than worthy of such trust.

By turns agitated, insistent and beautifully lyrical, the Quintet, comprised of five titled movements, provides an instantly enjoyable and rich listening experience. There is some genuine wit and outgoing humor on display, but also extended moments of intense and yearning contemplation.

Andres describes his own inspiration from Robert Schumann as mostly structural, but I found the Piano Quintet perfectly at home on the bill and a wonderfully accomplished and original realization, pairing his own work to his "long-time favorite," the Schumann quintet. The performance utilized Jonathan Biss sparingly, but his playing was predictably impressive, and his immersion with and punctuation of other members of the ensemble gave full voice to the dazzling and often surprisingly ardent voice of Timo Andres.

The evening concluded with a wonderful performance of the Schumann Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 47. I suppose it would have been a little too on-the-nose to finish with Schumann's much more famous and frequently performed quintet. It was a rare opportunity to hear the charming Piano Quartet live, and Biss was especially persuasive in his exquisitely phrased contributions. As a voice for and unapologetic promoter of Schumann, he really puts his heart and his talent where his mouth is.

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