"Playing Schumann has always felt to me like having an X-ray of my soul," says 26-year-old pianist Jonathan Biss. On his latest solo recording, Biss shares his deep awareness of two major piano works by Robert Schumann. This exploration of Schumann's "Fantasie" and "Kreisleriana" has been a complicated process for Biss, yet it's also been an extremely fulfilling one.
Schumann originally conceived his "Fantasie" as a tribute to Beethoven. In the central theme of the first movement, he quotes a song from Beethoven's cycle, "An die ferne Geliebte," which means "To the Distant Beloved." The song is about remembrance, and Schumann echoes it at the end of the movement rather than at the beginning. In this movement, Schumann simultaneously mourns the separation in space from his beloved Clara Wieck, as well as the separation in time from Beethoven and the musical world he inhabited.
To represent Schumann's huge emotional undertaking, Jonathan Biss uses every tool in his artistic arsenal. What immediately strikes me is his delicate touch on the keyboard, whether he's generating fiery sparks of passion or revealing tender moments of reflection. Biss uses a broad dynamic range, too, which gives full expression to the vast array of emotions in this piece.
In the "Fantasie," Biss seems to have a profound understanding of Schumann's poetic ramblings. "People have often shown impatience with Schumann's meanderings," Biss explains. "What a great pity. For Schumann's wanderings lead us to emotional spaces we don't normally dare to go, for fear that we may never find our way back."
"Kriesleriana" gives us the lighter and even humorous side of Schumann. This suite of eight pieces references E.T.A Hoffman's novel, "Kater Murr, the Educated Cat." The contrasts between each movement are sometimes jarring, yet notably cohesive, which is a testament not only to Schumann's skills as a composer, but also to Biss's ability to channel what Schumann intended.
One defining feature of Schumann's music is the speed and frequency with which he changes the mood. He tends to switch gears suddenly and without warning. In the second movement of "Kreisleriana," Schumann requests a tempo that is "intense, but not too quick." He accomplishes that by starting off almost in a day-dream with a very relaxed, mood. Within two minutes, there's a slight pause and then we hear what almost sounds like Kater Murr, the educated cat, pouncing on the keys. The serene mood of the opening returns quickly so as not to disrupt the daydream too much.
I keep returning to the fifth movement of "Kriesleriana." This is a very lively piece, and Biss brings it to life, galloping across the keyboard. Like his teacher, Leon Fleisher, Biss is devoted to the inner truth of the score. He digs for the authentic meaning behind the notes, and then he tells that story. Although Biss is following the score, his thoughts are so free-flowing that this musical story sounds as if it's completely improvised.
Jonathan Biss comes from a long line of professional musicians, including his grandmother Raya Garbousova, for whom Samuel Barber composed his Cello Concerto. He grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, where his parents, violinist Miriam Fried and violist/violinist Paul Biss, taught at Indiana University. He studied with Leon Fleisher for four years at the Curtis Institute. Biss notes that at 78, Fleisher still has an incredible passion and respect for music. On this new Schumann recording Jonathan Biss demonstrates that he has absorbed these lessons well. Biss may be a young artist, but he already knows how to allow the music to penetrate his soul.