Jonathan Biss

Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas

Orchid Classics

OF all the many projects to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, this nine-disc boxset of all 32 of his Piano Sonatas will surely stand at the end of the year as one of 2020’s major events. American pianist Jonathan Biss has immersed himself in these works for a decade, releasing these recordings as an album a year since 2011, and at the same time published an e-book on the project and presented an online course of study, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, in collaboration with Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute where he himself was a student.

Recorded in New York with award-winning producer David Frost, these are immaculate performances, full of fresh insight. The one everyone knows, No 14 “Moonlight”, shimmers but also delights in its rule-breaking, and is followed by the “bonus track” in the package, the improvisatory, mysterious Fantasy in G Minor.

Biss’s Hammerklavier, the epic No 29, is commanding, but mostly notable for the emotional intensity he brings to the fifteen-and-a-half minute Adagio. It, understandably, shares a disc with two much shorter sonatas, but all the sequencing is very thoughtful, the last three works Beethoven wrote concluding the last three discs, each, like the previous six, showcasing the composer’s astonishing range. If Biss does not find the rootsiness in the jazzy variation in Opus 111 that Steven Osborne dug out live in Glasgow recently, his glossier way through the bars has plenty merit in itself.