Jonathan Biss plays Brett Dean and Beethoven

The price of the disc is definitely worth it for Dean's Winter Journey alone.

Jonathan Biss plays Brett Dean and Beethoven

Following on from Brett Dean's Wigmore Concert (we published my report just two days ago) here we have Dean's take on Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, the so-called “Emperor,” A Winter's Journey, in a coupling with that very concerto.

The disc was recorded live at Stockholm's Berwaldhallen in concerts between February 13th and 15h, 2020.

Jonathan Biss' Beethoven is very much a known and admired quantity, his solo sonata cycle notable for its integrity and insight (a Wigmore cycle was cruelly curtailed by covid). His "Emperor" is clean-cut - the ear delights in his cleanliness of articulation. But perhaps the Swedish Radio Symphony orchestra is not on top under David Afkham: they sound as if they don't quite know whether to classicise or romanticise their contribution:

Biss' contribution is superb, though. All those tricky technical moments are as nothing to him; where other pianists need to slow down, even ever so slightly, Biss does not. His understanding often piece, too, is seemingly complete.

The central movement has much beauty, but is never self -indulgent. If Biss does not quite capture the beauty and sense of expectation of the upward-reaching, slow statements of the ondo theme to come in the transition, the finale itself bursts out like a blast of energy. here, the Swedish RSO hits top form and, with them, Biss too. Here's the finale:

The full title of Brett Dean's piece is Piano Concerto (Gneixendorf Music - Eine Winterreise). “Gneixendorf” refers to a place near Grafenegg - at whose Festival Dean was Composer-in-Residence. On a free afternoon, he drove past a sign indicating that in Gneixendorf there was a “Beethovenhaus, ” where Beethoven and his nephew, Karl, arrived in late September, 1826. The move came in the wake of an argument between Beethoven and his brother; the composer and his nephew stayed there for some two months at Schloss Wasserhof, The String Quartet, Op. 135 was composed there; Beethoven also revised metronome markings for his Ninth Symphony. He contracted pneumonia en route back to Vienna (an open hose-drawn carriage in freezing conditions), and never fully recovered.

Dean offers a response that intends to set out Beethoven's state of mind in the light of familial angst and decreasing health. Given that this live recording dates from 2020 and the piece was written in 2019, the ink must have been (metaphorically, I am sure) still wet. The opening has the soloist within the orchestra, on an upright piano using the “super-sordino pedal” (so, the siding pedal is permanently depressed); Dean's metaphor for Beethoven's deafness. This first movement is titled “Ankunft: Gneixendorf? Das klingt wie eine brechtende Achte!" (Gneixendorf? - That sounds like a breaking axle!). In utilising the idea of arrival (and by extension farewell, the second movement), Dean seems to be referencing both Beethoven's “Pastoral” symphony first movement, and the “Les Adieux” Sonata, Op. 81a. Dean's musical argument is thrilling - the first movement is 14 minutes long, and offers the most amazing panoply, a rich, enhanced toccata. As the music progresses, the music of Beethoven's “Emperor” becomes more and more obvious:

Otherworldly textures, almost, begin “Die Abreise: Schwer gefasste Enschlüße (Muß es sein?)” (Departure: Difficult Decisions (Must It Be?)). If the first movement is a winter's journey, the slow movement is winter itself.

The finale scampers and scurries in a manic fashion - all credit to Biss' finger-strength here! Again, a toccata comes to mind, but here more playful than the first movement. This short movement is actually an Epilogue. To give it its full title: “Epilog: Plaudete, amici, comoedia finita est” (Epilogue: Clap, friends, the comedy is over).

Here's a YouTube of the entire performance:

... and here, Bossey & Hawkes' website (Dean's publishers) is an interview with the composer around A Winter's Journey.

Perhaps the complexities of the Dean set the orchestra on their toes: this is a finely-honed performance, with Biss, too, offering a reading of fierce concentration. The price of the disc is definitely worth it for Dean's Winter Journey alone.

The disc is available from Amazon here (there is a "free rip" option on purchase); the release date was yesterday, April 26, 2024. Spotify below. For searches elsewhere, please bear in mind the actual title of the disc is

Beethoven/5 Vol. 1”

This is the first in a concerto cycle in which the concertos are coupled with new works commissioned especially for the project.