Pianist Jonathan Biss embarks on the beginning of a seven-concert series at Cal Performances this weekend, playing all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. He’s just finished recording them, and is devoting this upcoming season to these works exclusively. He says their common thread is their variety. “Once he had done something, he was not interested in doing it again. He was interested in reinventing the form. He was interested in asking new questions. He was interested in pushing more boundaries every time he wrote one of these 32 pieces.”
The first two of seven concerts are this weekend. There’s more information at the Cal Performances website.
Biss describes his year-long focus (following several years of the recording project) as a little bonkers. “It is overwhelming, because it’s not just the number of notes, but it’s the sheer force of Beethoven’s personality. Any one of these pieces, you feel the specter of his intensity in the room. But that’s the most remarkable, and the most challenging, and the most meaningful aspect of all of this, is I really, in some kind of almost literal sense, feel like I’m living with him.” He’s grouped the pieces, not chronologically, but with a nod in that direction. Saturday’s concert will open with the first sonata, and the final piece in March will be the 32nd. This weekend’s recitals end with giant masterpieces of the middle period, his ‘Waldstein’ (#21) and ‘Appassionata’ (#23) sonatas. “Because I think maybe the variety is the most extraordinary aspect of this body of music, my priority was to showcase that within each concert as much as possible. I sort of deliberately didn’t match keys or characters. I sort of want the listener to be shocked going from piece to piece. ‘Oh – how can that also be a sonata, if what I just heard was a sonata? How is this a sonata?’” Part of the reason Biss took on this challenge was (despite the calendar year of the anniversary) its open-endedness. “I think that if he were the kind of person where there was some kind of endpoint, and, you know, you do enough work, and eventually you think you know what there is to be known about him, I wouldn’t be doing this in the first place. You know, the reason I’m playing all the sonatas is because I know it’s endless.”
He’ll be playing the full 5th sonata on Sunday afternoon’s program – here’s a video of him playing the opening movement several years ago.