by Melanie Wong
Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega
Last week on the intimate stage of Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, Jonathan Biss, in collaboration with the Elias String Quartet, explored the role of the piano within a chamber-music setting. A prominent North American soloist in his own right, Biss and ESQ have maintained a musical friendship, recently recording an album of Schumann and Dvořák quintets together.
The program opened with a perfectly executed chamber rendition of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 13. While incredibly light and stylistic, Biss’s performance of the Mozart lacked some presence and the overall dynamics left the audience wanting; while the pianissimos were incredible, the forte sections were far less grand than they could have been. Biss used the soft pedal throughout, an artistic choice that allowed for extreme control over the instrument, but greatly dampened the sound. The soft and simple second movement, however, was delivered with great nuance.
Second on the program was Leoš Janáček’s Concertino for Piano and Chamber Ensemble, which removes the cello and adds a wind trio of clarinet, bassoon, and horn. A complete change of pace, the humorous piece opened with forceful, attention-grabbing chords. Throughout, the ensemble maintained fantastic blend and balance, with particular kudos going to horn player Eric Reed, whose playing was powerful and accurate. Carol McGonnell, on E-flat clarinet, comically accompanied the piano during the “fidgety squirrel” movement, causing the audience to chuckle at both the music and her body language, which was purposefully fidgety and squirrel-like.
Biss and ESQ closed the evening with Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet. In his newest project, Schumann: Under the Influence, Biss is exploring Schumann’s historical role while performing the composer’s repertoire across the globe. Here, Biss changed courses once again and performed with a deep, full sound and über-Romantic style.
Beautiful and mighty from beginning to end, the work truly showcased the group’s strengths: passionate energy, musical sensitivity, and excellent intonation. Biss—known for his poetic and lyrical phrasing—ripped through the dramatic cadenzas with ease, and cellist Marie Bittloch’s rich musicality was an added bonus to the entire evening. With the quintet’s striking finale came the uproar of applause, as the audience showered the performers with admiration.