• The Carnegie Hall Debut: Jonathan Biss on 'Breaking the Silence'

    In the second of a series of guest blog posts, pianist Jonathan Biss explains how all the pieces of the program for his January 21 solo recital debut fit together.


    Having written about the preparation I've been doing on this program, I thought I'd go back further and address how the program was put together in the first place. As I said in the earlier video, haltingly and with more hand-gesturing than was absolutely necessary, one of the pleasures of playing recitals is that I am entirely responsible for planning the program, and thus spend a lot of time thinking about what the experience of hearing it from start to finish will be like. I always find this process fascinating. One of the magical things about music is the way in which it can create an atmosphere so powerful the listener's body chemistry is altered. And so, the way one hears a piece of music is very much influenced by what one has just heard. In short, context is everything!

    Given how special this concert is to me, I spent even more time and energy than usual tossing this question around, imagining different combinations of pieces, thinking about atmosphere in the air at Carnegie, and how various pieces would feel emerging out of the silence there. (Every hall has its own unique silence—an ineffable feeling which has something to do with a mass of people collectively NOT making noise, but also something very specific to do with the space itself. I wouldn't even try to describe what it is in Carnegie, but the ghosts of a century's worth of great musicians who all played there certainly have something to do with it.)

    My decision to begin the program with Janáček's wonderful Sonata had a lot to do with my feeling that it could be a very powerful way to "break" that opening silence. We have a special relationship, the Janáček Sonata and I. (At least, I have a special relationship with it; I can't vouch for how it feels about me.) I learned it when I was 18. I had played the Violin Sonata, and knew and loved much of the chamber music and the operas, but at the point at which I got a volume containing his piano music out of the library, I had never heard a note of it. (Thus, the Sonata became the first work I ever played without having first heard someone else play it—that'll make you feel proprietary towards a piece!) And as I first played through the piece, I was frankly stunned at its power—the raw, yet in no way navel-gazing, emotion. This surely has something to do with the event which inspired it—the murder of Czech worker by the occupying army—but in the end, what is so striking to me about the Sonata is the same thing which strikes me about all of Janáček's's music: in the profoundest sense of the word, he has a voice—in ear for sound, for rhythm, for affect, which makes his music absolutely distinctive. And for me, he has become one of the voices of the 20th century which I cannot imagine living without.

    And because Janáček's is a now classic voice of the past century, I think his music makes a perfect "preparation" for the music of Bernard Rands who, a century later, is writing music no less distinctive. Around the time I found out that I'd be giving this recital, I had been offered the opportunity to commission a composer of my choice (my thanks to Music Accord for that!), and I almost immediately arrived at Mr Rands. I had known his symphonic and chamber works for years, and his music has two qualities in particular which I am in awe of. First, he manages to combine a unique musical personality with a deep sense of rootedness in the past—in very different ways, influences as various as Schumann (witness the title of the third piece, "Arabesque"), Debussy (the colors!!), and Scriabin (a kind of whirling intensity) make themselves noticed, and yet, much as is the case with Janáček's, I'd never mistake a note of Bernard's music as being by anyone else. Second, he has something which goes beyond craft—he has an extraordinary ear. There are chords in the second movement of this piece, in particular, which I still can't quite believe, even though I've already played it a handful of times. What it must be to have the ability to imagine such things...

    That said, programming a commissioned work does present a special problem: as the piece does not yet exist, you can't know what it will be like! (Well, maybe that's not entirely true—after all, it was my deep appreciation for Bernard's music which led me to commission him, so I was familiar with the language. But the more creative the composer, the wider the range of possible outcomes, so there was a substantial unknown element in play here.) And given that the piece was only finished months ago, waiting for the final product and planning the program around it was obviously not an option. I did not, however, want Bernard to feel that his piece was supposed to fit into a puzzle that was completed.

    So in this case, I took what seemed like the middle path. I told Bernard what else would be on the program, and then asked him to put it out of his mind. My hope was that he would write the piece that he felt compelled to write, but that in some entirely subconscious way, the voices of Beethoven, Schumann and Janáček's might nudge the piece in one direction or another. (Did they? Probably impossible to definitively say. What I can say is that in the performances I've given thus far, the program has had a wonderful quality of confrontation, with the Rands snapping the listener out of the state the Janáček's inspired, and eventually preparing the atmosphere of super-intensity that the Beethoven lives in.)

    So if you are putting together a program which includes a piece you don't yet know, how do you decide what should follow it? While this is always a bit of a risk, my gut is that Beethoven will always be the best answer. Why? Because all of us, we musicians who have come after him, are Beethoven's children. For composers and performers alike, trying to understand him and coming to terms with his sometimes overwhelming personality is a major part of one's development as a musician. And thus, all composers, simply through the act of writing, are in a dialogue with Beethoven.

    My motivation for programming the "Appassionata" was also personal, though. Because this concert feels like a milestone, I wanted to include pieces which similarly represented milestones in my life; this sonata is the first piano work that I loved so much, I was desperate to play it. I learned it when I was 13, and I can only imagine what I must have done to it—all I can remember was that it seemed awfully hard!—but playing it didn't feel like a choice; I needed to play it. I've performed the piece many, many times in the past (gulp) 17 years—possibly more than any other piece of music—and I certainly hope my playing of it has matured. But that quality of desperate intensity which attracted me to it so powerfully all those years ago has grown no less seductive. Great music can evoke just about any imaginable feeling; in the "Appasionata", it is the feeling that the world is coming to an end.

    Several people who have heard this program in the last couple of weeks have asked me if there is some programmatic link between the Beethoven and the Schumann Fantasy, which closes the program. The answer is that there isn't—the only link is that I love both of them deeply. But aside from that love, the reason I put them on this program together, on either side of the intermission, is that they both have this quality of heightened emotion, yet this is achieved in two totally different ways. (In the end, that's always the key to making a good program: interesting similarities and interesting differences.) While the "Appassionata" is, above all, relentless—not one note strays from the work's central argument, and its plunge toward its inevitable conclusion—the Schumann Fantasy expands, contracts, winds, digresses (so beautifully!!!!), and finds its way to its conclusion only through sheer exhaustion. Schumann conceived the piece as a tribute to Beethoven, but what it ends up displaying, is how dazzlingly individual he was.

    Schumann quotes Schlegel on the first page of the Fantasy, saying that the piece is for "those who secretly listen", and what is so magnificent and so improbable about this work is the way it combines the intimacy that statement implies with a grandeur which runs through the whole work. And this, too, has often struck me as the glory of Carnegie Hall. While it is enormous, imposing, and wondrous-looking, it somehow allows one to feel purely—intimately—connected to the music; it is a place which rewards those who secretly listen. To have the chance to play this piece, which I truly love more than I can express, in this hall—the thought takes my breath away.

    —Jonathan Biss

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