Already at the mid-point of his nine-year, nine-disc recording cycle of all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, Jonathan Biss has now released Volume 5. This disc includes sonatas 3, 25, 27, and 28. As a performer who also teaches and writes about the composer, Biss has decided to approach the full cycle thematically rather than chronologically. He has been praised for that decision, as well as for his sharp technique and deep sincerity. Of Biss’s playing on Volume 2, NPR Music said, “Filled with mysterious silences, Biss unreels the music like a prayer to the universe,” while BBC Music Magazine said of Volume 4, “Jonathan Biss will surely take his place among the greats if he continues on this exalted plane.”
Biss explains his choice of these particular sonatas for Volume 5 by marveling at the change that occurs between an early work like Sonata No. 3 and the later works. “20 years, and an entire cosmos, separate the sonatas that bookend this recording. The evolution that takes place within Beethoven between the C Major Sonata, Opus 2 number 3, and the A Major, Opus 101, is monumental, almost impossible to overstate: I struggle to think of an artist – not Picasso, not Schönberg, not Joyce – who changed so profoundly over the course of a working life.” He believes that it is “Beethoven’s embrace of vulnerability” that traces this evolution throughout the works on the disc. “Beethoven’s 32 sonatas might use the same toolbox, and ask many of the same questions, but only in these late works is Beethoven’s soul, bruised and bolstered by the shock of life, on full display.”
As a member of the faculty of his alma mater the Curtis Institute of Music since 2010, Biss led the first massive open online course (MOOC) offered by a classical music conservatory, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, which has reached more than 150,000 people in more than 160 countries. He is continuing to add lectures to the course until he covers all the sonatas. He was also the first classical musician to write a Kindle Single, Beethoven’s Shadow, which was published by RosettaBooks in 2011.
This season Biss also launched his latest Beethoven project, Beethoven/5, for which the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is commissioning five composers to write new piano concertos, each inspired by one of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. The five-year plan began this fall in Minnesota, where Biss played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and the new concerto by Timo Andres that it inspired, “The Blind Banister.” The piece, called “unfailingly compelling” by the Star Tribune, was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist earlier this week. In the next four years, Biss will premiere new concertos by Sally Beamish, Salvatore Sciarrino, Caroline Shaw, and Brett Dean, each paired with a Beethoven concerto.