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The Carnegie Hall Debut: Jonathan Biss on 'Infinite Possibilities'

In a guest blog post as part of The Carnegie Hall Debut series, pianist Jonathan Biss reflects on experiencing the live versus the recorded versions of the program for his January 21 solo recital debut in Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage.

Hello Carnegie Hall website readers! Over the next couple of months I’ll be posting here as I prepare for my January 21st recital. These posts should be a lot like the video clips which also appear on this site, only more long-winded and hopefully with less stuttering.

Because playing a recital at Carnegie Hall is such a milestone, I always knew—from the moment I found out I would be giving the concert—that I would program pieces which had long been important to me, in some cases for most of my life. One practical (and probably inevitable) result of this is that two of the pieces on the concert—the Beethoven "Appassionata" and the Schumann Fantasy—are ones which I've recorded, and it’s struck me how different the preparation of those pieces feels, having been through the intense (sometimes harrowing!) experience of committing them to disc.

There are, to be fair, other reasons for this sense of difference. The Beethoven and Schumann are both iconic works of the piano literature, and in both cases, there have been many performances by other pianists—both live and recorded—which made a profound impression on me. In the case of the Janáček Sonata, though, I can only remember hearing it played once, and as for the Rands, which I'll be premiering in just a few days, there is literally NO performance tradition—a clean slate. (More on that another time.)

I feel pretty strongly that as a performer, it is my job to put all of that tradition aside and develop a relationship with these pieces which is, as much as is possible, strictly my own. Lest this sound arrogant, let me clarify that it is not that I don’t think I can learn from those other performances (of Schnabel, Serkin, Cortot, Perahia, Goode, and on and on ...). But in the case of any great artist, there is something unique—an essential quality—which belongs to them and them alone. Borrowing this essence is impossible, and so what ends up happening when one is over-influenced by another performance is that you cherry-pick details. And the details, without the essence, simply don’t add up to much. And anyway, with pieces as great as the "Appassionata" or the Schumann Fantasy, there is an infinite amount left to be said about them—and the more one has a received idea of the piece stuck in one’s head, the harder it is to open mind and heart to those infinite possibilities.

What the recording question adds to this, I think, is that one’s own recording becomes a part of this elaborate history which is best let go of. As much as I may have protested otherwise, when I recorded these pieces, I was very mindful of the permanence of what I was doing—those performances, for better or (and, actually) for worse, were going to be around forever. And that reality, no matter how much you fight against it, changes your approach. One of the best things about playing great music is that it is constantly changing—its meaning evolves as you evolve, and the qualities you recognize in it multiply as your general awareness grows. A recording, though, never changes; it remains fixed even as you move on from it. And so when making a recording, there is always the temptation to see it as a summation—the culmination of all one's work, rather than a step along a path.

So in coming back to these pieces, one of the most vital aspects of my preparation is fighting against the feeling that I capital-K Know them. The thrill of a live performance, I think, based on years giving them and of listening to them, is connected to the sense that the music is being created on the spot. And despite the fact that we are talking about music that was composed hundreds of years ago, this is not entirely an illusion. Music only really exists when it is being played, and if the performer is willing to be vulnerable—REALLY vulnerable!—then all the preparation and study can serve not to hem you in, but rather to open up more and more expressive possibilities.

So, ironic as it may sound, what I’m constantly reminding myself of these days as I practice Beethoven and Schumann is that while I probably did learn something in recording these pieces, what I don't yet know about them is infinitely more interesting. And while the work that I did in preparing for those recordings was, in a way, invaluable, a compact disc has only two dimensions; a Carnegie Hall performance of the same piece should ideally have four! As Schnabel used to point out, the German word for "disc-making" also means "flattening out." As I prepare for Carnegie, my main goal is to find an approach to these works that is as dynamic as the hall itself.

—Jonathan Biss