Arts & Events

Jonathan Biss & St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Play Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday February 11, 2018 - 09:08:00 PM

How lucky we are in the Bay Area! This week, in the space of four days, we heard Beethoven’s monumental Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, nicknamed the “Emperor,” performed by two world-class pianists with two world-class orchestras! On Thursday, February 9, I heard pianist Garrick Ohlsson team up with conductor Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony; and on Sunday afternoon, February 11, I heard Jonathan Biss as soloist and director with the St, Paul Chamber Orchestra. What a study of contrasts were the two performances. The Ohlsson-Blomstedt rendition of Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto, as I wrote in the review that was posted here Saturday, was outstanding in its attention to details, and, especially, its attention to dynamics. Jonathan Biss’s rendition, on the contrary, paid little attention to dynamics. It’s not that Biss did not occasionally play softly. He did, though not as softly as Ohlsson. Rather, it’s that the St, Paul Chamber Orchestra rarely played softly, and, here too, never as softly as the San Francisco Symphony led by Herbert Blomstedt. In short, there was little, if any, sense of dynamic contrast in the Biss-St. Paul Chamber Orchestra rendition of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. Instead, Biss and his orchestra thundered throughout this work, hardly ever allowing softer, more delicate moments to appear in the music.  

This much said, I want to emphasize that I don’t doubt for an instant just how consummate a pianist is Jonathan Biss. He is phenomenal. His technique is absolutely awesome. If I have any reservation about Biss, it falls in the area of interpretation. Attention to dynamic variations seems, to me, at least, to be something essential to Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. When such attention is lacking or minimized, something essential is lost. We can wonder, awestruck, at the fabulous technique of a pianist like Jonathan Biss as he thunders through this concerto; but this kind of interpretation makes Beethoven out to be one-dimensional, and that does the composer an injustice. (Incidentally, on this issue I recall just how profoundly moving was the delicate touch of pianist Maria Joao Pires in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, when she performed it here in February, 2016 with the San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt. Indeed, so delicate and so moving was the touch of Ms. Pires that it brought Maestro Blomstedt to tears of appreciation! Beethoven, as understood by Blomstedt, Pires, and Ohlsson, should not be cubby-holed as a thunderer, which is how so many pianists, including Jonathan Biss, seem to treat him.) 

Leading off Sunday’s program was Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. In this work, Ravel paid tribute to Francois Couperin, an important composer at the court of Louis XIV. Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, which first appeared in a piano version in 1919, was immediately transcribed by Ravel for a chamber orchestra. It is this latter version that was played by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. In all four sections of this work, the oboe is prominently featured, and principal oboist Kathryn Greenbank performed admirably. 

Rounding off the first half of Sunday’s program was O Mikros, O Megas, a work by Greek-American composer George Tsontakis. The title, meaning something like “Small World, Great World,” was inspired by the opening lines of “Axion Esti” by the great contemporary Greek poet Odysseas Elytis: “Aftos O Kosmos, O Mikros, O Megas.” The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra was a co-commissioner of this work by George Tsontakis; and they premiered it in 2016. Since then they have performed it eighteen times in concerts. In offering introductory remarks, an orchestra spokesman noted that in spite of its title, there is little contrast in this work between small and great. I beg to differ. It seems to me that in each of the four sections there is a contrast between the small world of inner quiet and the great world of cosmic turbulence. Granted, each of the four sections ends on a quiet note. This is definitely an inward-looking piece. But it looks inward for quiet and repose in the face of a cosmic world of agitation and urgency. I find O Mikros, O Megas by George Tsontakis a lovely, profoundly moving piece of contemporary music; and I hope the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will soon record it.