The Jukebox Album – Tom Poster (piano) and Elean Urioste (violin)

Few of us believed the 2020 lockdown would go on for more than a couple of weeks. In the midst of the initial announcement by government, many musicians – and others – watched in horror as their work dried up overnight. When it became apparent that this was no “two weeks to flatten the curve”, musicians had no work in prospect with concert halls and venues closed for the foreseeable future. Bereft of live performances, many turned to the internet as a means of sharing their music with others and a number of very imaginative projects grew out of the weeks of isolation.

#UriPosteJukeBox, created by violinist Elena Urioste and pianist Tom Poster (the handle is a portmanteau of their surnames, and they are a husband-and-wife duo), was originally intended “to simply to keep our minds sharp, fingers busy, and friends smiling” (Elena Urioste) by sharing a daily music video for each day spent in isolation. The inclusion of the word “jukebox” in the hashtag gave the project “an old-timey method of enjoying music” and the musicians invited their virtual audience to suggest what they might play, thereby adding another “jukebox” element to their performances. Flooded with requests, the project that took off in ways the duo had never dreamed of, capturing the imaginations and hearts of listeners around the world, and embracing requests that traversed many musical genres – from Bach to Britney Spears, Mozart to Messiaen, Sondheim to nursery rhymes and even mash-ups of pop songs of the 1980s! The pair entertained their virtual audiences and followers with daily videos, featuring increasingly elaborate costumes, props, additional instruments, and multi-tracking. In all, they made 88 videos – one for each key on the piano. The impact of the endeavour and the joy it brought to so many during an extraordinarily challenging time was formally recognised with a Royal Philharmonic Society Inspiration Award

The project also led to new commissions – An Essay of Love by Mark Simpson (conceived for the pair even before they approached him), Bloom by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Emotiva by Clarice Assad, Arietta by Huw Watkins, Bha là eile ann (There was a different day) by Donald Grant, and Peace by Jessie Montgomery-,  pieces written in response to or reflections on lockdown and the strange, uncertain days of 2020. These pieces were premiered in the daily music videos and have now found their way onto The Jukebox Album, a collection of 16 of the duo’s favourite pieces from the project.

In keeping with the eclecticism and imagination of the original project, the album presents a wide range of music – from much-loved favourites like A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, Send In The Clowns and La Vie En Rose (all given a wonderfully “vintage” sound through Urioste’s silky violin tone and Poster’s warm piano sound) to works by Lili Boulanger, Cecile Chaminade and Gabriel Fauré.

The opening track, Jerome Kern’s Look for the Silver Lining, reflects the spirit of the whole Jukebox project: bereft of concert work, Poster and Urioste sought a silver lining in their own situation, and embarked on something primarily to keep themselves occupied and to give them focus (“I probably would’ve put the violin in its case and not seen it for a month or two” – Elena Urioste), but which quickly became something joyful and uplifting to lighten the darkest days of lockdown, providing comfort and pleasure to the many people who craved music and connection.

The resulting Jukebox Album is a ‘recital disc’ of great variety and charm, all performed with commitment, care and obvious affection. Perhaps it is just the effect of listening after 18 months of lockdowns, restrictions, heightened anxiety, loss….but many of the pieces are tinged with poignancy – Bha là eile ann (There was a different day) by Donald Grant is a real tear-jerker track, but this is quickly dispelled by the jollity of the finale, Jukebox Toodle-oo, which features Tom Poster on piano, cello, descant recorder, kazoo, and swanee whistle, and has a delightful 1930s foot-tapping swing.

This is the music we’ve loved our whole lives. The music world likes to pigeon-hole people, but this felt like the most authentic version of ourselves musically that we’ve ever been able to be publicly, because this is the music we’ve always loved playing.” – Tom Poster

The Jukebox Album is available on the Orchid Classics label


Tom and Elena chat about The Jukebox Album:

Tom: Which was your favourite track to record on The Jukebox Album?

Elena: I think I’d have to say the opening track, Jerome Kern’s Look for the Silver Lining. Not only did I get to multi-track four violin parts using the shimmeriest old-school sound I could produce, but the whole track had an authentic sense of #UriPosteJukeBox spontaneity, as Tom decided to arrange it the night before the recording sessions!

Elena: And which was your favourite track?

Tom: Almost certainly the closing track, the Jukebox Toodle-oo. Prior to this whole project, I really never expected to find myself laying down tracks on recorder, cello, swanee whistle and kazoo at the Menuhin Hall for Orchid Classics…

Tom: What was the funniest moment in the Jukebox Album recording sessions?

Elena: Sitting with our engineer, Patrick Allen, both of us crying with laughter as Tom recorded his kazoo tracks. I wish the adrenaline-fuelled (and wildly inaccurate) first take had been preserved on the final recording…

Elena: What was your favourite costume in the original #UriPosteJukeBox video series?

Tom: Probably the (accidental) Tin Teletubby of Oz. Or perhaps Olaf the Snowman, except for the carrot nose which kept poking me in the eyes, and the fact that Elena made me crouch down behind a piano as she attempted multiple takes of her opening monologue.

Tom: What’s one piece/song that was never requested which you’d have loved to include?

Elena: Boyz II Men’s On Bended Knee, though I’m afraid I don’t think I could do Wanya’s vocal pyrotechnics justice on the violin.

Elena: Who were you most worried might see the Jukebox series, and which video were you most hoping for them not to see?

Tom: My longtime piano teacher, Joan Havill. Having spent many years poring over the finer details of late Beethoven sonatas with her, I felt particularly nervous about the idea that she might see me playing Beyoncé on the recorder in the bath. In fact, I know she did see some of the videos (“well it’s lovely for people to see a lighter side of you, darling“) though I’ve no idea if she saw that one…

Elena: As many of our die-hard viewers know, Joey Urioste (Elena’s parents’ dog) starred in a few Jukebox videos. If you could invite any other animal to guest star, what/who would it be?

Tom: Gerald the proboscis monkey

Tom: Would you rather (a) walk out on stage to play the Mozart Bassoon Concerto at the Proms, having never played the bassoon, or (b) play every recital for the rest of your career with a pair of trousers hanging off your head, without ever being able to explain the reason?

Elena: The latter – in fact I think I’m going to do it regardless.

Elena: Koalas or wombats?

Tom: Wombats

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I started playing the piano when I was very young – always by ear to begin with – and it wasn’t long before I started to pick out my own tunes on the keys. It felt very natural. I’d probably be horrified if I heard those stumblings now, but the seed was definitely sown. So it was always music from the get-go. I had some lucky breaks with television scoring soon after I left university, and it was then that I realized that I might be able to write music and pay the bills!

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I was lucky enough to have a wonderful music teacher at school – the sort of chap who thought nothing of involving the entire school in an epic performance of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. (I was in charge of the percussion section, and our trip to Woolworths to go through their entire mug collection for the ‘slung mugs’ raindrops is a lasting memory.) Without his encouragement I wouldn’t have gone to Cambridge – and, as is so often the case, I can trace the rest of my musical career from that wonderful springboard.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Even if you know it’s the only thing you want to do, starting out as a musician (or any creative artist) is, as we all know, really hard. It’s even more difficult now, especially given the times we’re living through. And to have those pressures, both creative and practical, while trying to stay true to your strengths and not compromise can be daunting. The greatest challenges so far – usually involving being some considerable distance outside my musical comfort zone – have nearly always produced new and inspiring ideas. The greatest frustrations? When you find yourself in a creative cul-de-sac (for any number of reasons) and you have to find a way out because there’s a deadline looming.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with so many wonderful musicians and artists over the years, and when you’re able to write music knowing who’s going to play it or sing it, it can be inspirational. When you can tailor a piece or a solo or a whole musical landscape to someone’s personality – quirks and all – then that’s the challenge and the pleasure rolled into one! And collaborating with new colleagues, as I’ve been doing recently, starts that journey again.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’ve written quite a lot of music for youth ensembles, and seeing the fun and sense of accomplishment they give to children of all ages and from every walk of life is wonderful. It’s instant communication, and it’s very special.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

With each new commission I’m nearly always asked to come up with some “good tunes”, so that’s a bit of a giveaway. I’m not a particular fan of the ‘accessible’ description, but I’ve always written in a melodic, tonal style which, it seems, still resonates with a lot of people. I’m the first to admit that the style of my concert pieces owes a lot to my media work, and I’m not trying to create two different worlds. It’s a dramatic language that, for me, crosses over.

How do you work?

When I first started out everything was written at the piano. But, inevitably, the process now is initial sketches at the piano (with a trusty pencil) before going over to the computer and scoring from there – a familiar story for so many composers. When I worked a lot in television I treated the job as a 9 to 5 operation, almost literally. It was the only way to get so much music written in such a short space of time. Concert commissions are more forgiving, but I find I still need the pressure of a deadline. Adrenalin is a wonderful creative tool!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

There are so many that the list would go on forever. And tomorrow I’d probably give you a completely different list. Working with Lang Lang and Joshua Bell was extraordinary – their musicianship is awe-inspiring – and can I give a shout-out to my great-aunt, the pianist Dame Myra Hess? If you know some of the history of the National Gallery’s lunchtime concerts during the Second World War you will know what an extraordinary woman she was. Composers? All over the place – Elgar, Walton, Mahler, Fauré, John Williams, Tallis, Sondheim….

What do you feel needs to be done to grow and maintain classical music’s audiences?

It goes without saying that the question has a poignancy today that we couldn’t imagine a year ago. To get back to where we were would be a major achievement, and embracing the new audience who have turned to ‘classical’ music as a source of comfort during these unprecedented times is hugely important.

As a composer, what is your definition of success?

If you can start with a blank page (or computer screen) and create music that connects with a listener on any level, whether for a few moments or a lifetime, that’s success.

The Way of Light – The Music of Nigel Hess is released on 5 February on the Orchid Classics Label
Nigel Hess has had considerable success in the film and television world (Campion, Maigret, Wycliffe, Dangerfield, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, Badger and Ladies in Lavender). This new album concentrates on music he wrote for the concert hall.

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?

Whilst toddling around my house, aged 3, I banged my head on something and lashed out. To my surprise, it made a beautiful sound, and I’ve played the piano most days since.

Choosing music as a career took a bit longer. Despite feeling elated and richly fulfilled as a chorister touring the Eastern Seaboard with St David’s Cathedral Choir, many years ago, I expected to continue my pastoral life in Pembrokeshire and become an accountant… until I heard about music college auditions. I applied and have never looked back!

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Such a tricky question! Being a former cathedral chorister was certainly the most important influence on my formative years and still influences me greatly. The training and performance opportunities I received were incredible and now inform the way I collaborate with singers. Working with Pascal Nemirovski during my undergraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music was a very important influence, and more recently being the Viola Tunnard Young Artist at Snape Maltings (where Flax and Fire was recorded) gave me the chance to explore new ideas and skills.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Lockdown! And secondly, having the courage to admit how dearly I wanted a family, and taking a leap of faith to start it. I was really afraid of losing work – and there were a few engagements I surrendered or postponed – but in retrospect it was the best thing I ever did. It has brought a sense of balance and practicality to my work that I’d only dreamed of before.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Curating ‘Flax and Fire’ was a pivotal moment for me: I developed holistically as an artist during the process, and it taught me a lot about my creative practice.

Building SongEasel from scratch and performing in the series has been a really affirming activity, and bringing it online this July is something I’ll remember for years to come.

I am also really proud to have performed Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto to a packed Oxford Proms audience several years ago – the emotional and physical stamina required meant that it was something of a personal triumph!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I have a particular affinity with dramatic, lyrical works, such as those by Liszt: romanticism is a period close to my heart. That said, many of Schubert’s Lieder are mini-dramas in themselves, and the clean slate of a new composition is always inspiring.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

As a collaborative pianist, a lot of my repertoire choices are a joint venture. I will often be guided by a voice type as I construct a programme for singers. In parallel, I aim to curate and tour programmes that fascinate me – for example repertoire that I’ve loved since I was a child; or a little-known work that has captured my imagination. I feel lucky to be able to follow my curiosity a great deal of the time.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

There are so many lovely venues, it’s very difficult to pick one! I’ve had some really amazing experiences at Wigmore Hall, and also playing at home in Wales is always a pleasure.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Recently I’ve been listening to Martha Argerich and Vladimir Horowitz. Their pianism is second to none. I also love the recordings of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – he was an iconic interpreter of Lied, and Carlos Klieber’s discs with the Vienna Philharmonic are wonderfully emotional and energised. I’m also a fan of Bon Jovi!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are a few works which, when I perform them effect me deeply and leave me feeling hollow from the rawness of their emotion. These memories are frozen in my memory, like a very special place in time. The first was accompanying a production Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd as a student; the second performing James MacMillan’s Kiss on ‘Wood’; the third was Rhian Samuel’s The Gaze with Elin Manahan Thomas; and most recently, Shostakovich’s Four Pushkin Romances with Gareth Brynmor John.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

It has to be loving what you do, above anything else, otherwise there’s really not much point!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Know and love your unique weaknesses – nobody else will be able to do this like you can, and others most frequently focus on your strengths.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I used to think that achieving the perfect work-life-family balance would bring me happiness. Now I believe that happiness is actually the process of aspiring to this perfect equilibrium, working towards it each day, and the hope brought by such a unachievable concept!

 

‘Flax and Fire’ is the debut album of tenor Stuart Jackson and pianist Jocelyn Freeman, featuring works by Britten, Wolf, Liszt and Robert Schumann and released on the Orchid Classics label on 17 July.


Award-winning collaborative pianist Jocelyn Freeman is founder-director and curator of SongEasel, a new initiative established to provide a platform for song in South East London. Her artistry has been described as “outstanding”, “brilliant”, “sparkling” and “one to watch”, including accolades from The Observer and International Piano Magazine.

Jocelyn’s versatility ranges from Lieder to chamber music and concertos, often championing lesser-known composers alongside standard classical and contemporary repertoire. She has premiered and recorded works by John Brunning, Dilys Elwyn-Edwards and Rhian Samuel. Her imaginative approach to programming is evident in projects with award-winning artists including Jamal Aliyev, Gareth Brynmor John, Elin Manahan Thomas and Julien Van Mellaerts, and her discography includes releases for Kissan Records, Orchid Classics and Ty Cerdd.

Jocelyn is a prize-winning graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, Phoebe Benham Fellow 2012 at the Royal College of Music, a Samling Artist and Britten–Pears alumnus. Prizes include the Viola Tunnard Young Artist Award, Marlow International Concerto Competition and the Internationalen Wettbewerb für Liedkunst in Stuttgart with Stuart Jackson.

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Who or what inspired you to take up singing and pursue a career in music?

My father was an actor and singer so that was a big influence on my choice, but I think he always wanted me to be a visual artist rather than a performer. He was of course happy when I showed interest in singing, but he never pushed me down the path. I always loved singing and performing and did so at a good level but wasn’t sure it would work as a career, so I went to university get a science degree. I sang in the choir at Christchurch, Oxford, and as good as that was, I was still not decided. Towards the end of my degree I took part in a singing course, the AIMS course, and it reawoke something in me; made me believe I could make it as a solo singer rather than just singing in choirs, and that if making a career out of singing was actually possible it was what I wanted to do. Therefore, after university I applied to the Royal Academy of Music and was successful, and from that point on I’ve been lucky enough to keep going.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My father. My teachers at school, Jonathan and Sarah Holmes and Simon Gregory. My teachers David Lowe and Ryland Davies. Wonderful coaches Jonathan Papp and Audrey Hyland. John Copley directed my first full opera at the RAM and I learned so, so much from him. Richard Stokes and his infectious love of Lieder. Ludmilla Andrews and her Russian song.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Well, obviously number one is right now – Covid-19 is a terrible thing for the music world, and an awful time for everyone involved in the arts. Otherwise, I have many stories of difficult auditions – one where my flight was delayed for 12 hours and I had to sleep in the airport and got to the venue 30 minutes before my slot, or being dumped in a hot room with 12 other singers and nowhere to warm up or get a drink for 3 hours before the auditions started. It’s part of the job though – being able to perform as well as you can despite the circumstances is important, even if it can be very frustrating!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m very proud to have my first CD being released. There are a few performances that spring to mind:

Stepping forward as a cover to sing Orpheus in Gluck’s Orphée when I was in Stuttgart Germany the year after college. A huge, huge role, not enough time to learn the staging, incredibly challenging but also incredibly fun.

Singing in the Wigmore song competition final as a 25 year old with Jocelyn, scared out of my mind but really loving the experience, managing to produce a good performance despite the adrenaline.

I love creating roles for the first time and doing that with Paul Curran with the Bartered Bride last year was really wonderful – working out how you feel about a character and what aspects of life to draw into them is incredibly rewarding.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why/what is your most memorable concert experience?

I love performing in all sorts of venues – some of my best memories are performing at the Wigmore Hall, as well as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Kölner Philharmonie. My two most memorable venues however were in the Sam Wanamaker theatre with Trevor Pinnock – an intimate and beautiful space in the round made of beautiful wood and lit with beeswax candles. A stunning space. The other memorable venue was in northern France, where I evangelised the Johannes Passion in a repurposed auction house from the auctioneer’s position above the rest of the singers & orchestra. Tremendously dramatic, and felt somehow completely right for the music.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Too many to list – I find that the vast majority of the people I work with are both lovely and fantastic performers and it would feel wrong to single anyone out. In terms of recordings, my lieder shelves are full of Fritz Wunderlich and Fischer-Dieskau recordings. In terms of operatic tenors, it’s usually Gedda, Pavarotti, Ford, Vickers, Corelli and Florez. In terms of non-classical music, its probably Thom Yorke, Miles Davies, Joanna Newsom and Janelle Monáe.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I’d tell any young musician to be as adventurous as possible – work with as many different people and different instrumentalists as you can, try songs in as many styles and languages as you can, try everything because it will let you work out what you enjoy and where your strengths lie. As for the realities of being a professional, I don’t think I realised when at college how difficult it would be to live on the road. There is a certain disconnect that comes from living out of a suitcase half the year and it is vital to keep as grounded and connected as you can.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Performing around the world, doing roles and concert programmes I want to in good venues with good people. I would say more, but given the realities of the moment, that feels like enough.

What is your most treasured possession?

One of my treasured possessions is a hard bound copy of the Messiah that I must have used 40 times. I was given it as a birthday gift about 10 years ago by my mother, and I’ve taken it with me around the world. It probably needs to be rebound by now – the red from the leather comes off a bit on my hands if they sweat and the gold leaf has become scuffed – but I’ve used it so much in so many different places that seeing it always makes me happy. I hope to use it again very soon.

‘Flax and Fire’ is the debut album of tenor Stuart Jackson and pianist Jocelyn Freeman, featuring works by Britten, Wolf, Liszt and Robert Schumann and released on the Orchid Classics label on 17 July.


The English tenor Stuart Jackson was a choral scholar at Christ Church Oxford, studying Biological Sciences, before completing his training at the Royal Academy of Music in 2013. In 2011, aged 25 and the youngest finalist, he won second prize at the Wigmore Hall International Song Competition performing with pianist Jocelyn Freeman, and the pair also won second prize at the International Hugo Wolf Lied competition. He has appeared as a recitalist at Wigmore Hall, Kings Place, St John’s Smith Square, London and at Oxford’s Holywell Room amongst many others. Stuart joined Stuttgart Opera Studio for the 2013/14 season. He is currently a Classical Opera Associate Artist with whom he has recorded the title role in Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione and Soliman in Zaide. He has performed all over the world in opera, including with the Royal Opera House, at English National Opera, Glyndebourne, Garsington, the Komische Oper Berlin, Stuttgart Opera, Opéra national du Rhin, Opera Australia, Opéra national de Lorraine and Aix en Provence. Some of his favourite performed roles include Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Jupiter in Semele and High Priest in Saul.

He also performs frequently on the concert platform, performing Bach, Handel, Beethoven and much else all over Europe and the UK, including the Wigmore Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw.

 

Review by Karine Hetherington

Natalya Romaniw’s star has been shining bright on the operatic stage for the past five years as her creamy soprano voice continues to draw an ever increasing legion of fans. A Daily Telegraph critic suggested in February this year that Romaniw was the next Netrebko of her generation.

At Opera Holland Park last season, I was enraptured by her lead performance in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. Her Tosca at Scottish Opera and, more recently, her Madame Butterfly at ENO, earned her the highest of accolades from critics and audiences alike. Her Cho Cho San at the Coliseum was unforgettable.

And now away from the heady world of live opera, Romaniw, together with pianist and long time collaborator, Lada Valešová, are bringing out Arion, an album of Slavic song repertoire.

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Romaniw-ORC100131-WebCover-1

For American pianist Jonathan Biss, Beethoven has been a near-constant companion for almost his entire life. He has been playing and writing about the 32 Piano Sonatas, has spent nearly ten years recording Beethoven’s sonatas and has embarked on a cycle of concerts performing all the sonatas at London’s Wigmore Hall and in the US (and let us hope this wonderful series will be able to resume….).

the intensity of my current immersion with his music has become one of the most profound experiences of my life.

Jonathan Biss

This handsomely-produced boxset of the complete Piano Sonatas (Orchid Classics) presents the sonatas not in chronological order, as many sets do, but rather with a cross-section of sonatas on each disc, to demonstrate Biss’s conviction that each one stands as a brilliant masterpiece in its own right. This approach – one which he is also taking in his concert cycle – allows the listener to appreciate the individual qualities and distinct structures of each sonata, and the extraordinary development in Beethoven’s piano writing. Thus, the final sonatas, usually presented as a trilogy, in concert and on disc, are placed on separate discs within the context of sonatas from different periods of Beethoven’s compositional life. Biss refutes the notion that Beethoven had three distinct compositional periods as an over-simplification and instead urges the listener to view Beethoven’s compositional style in “a perpetual state of evolution”; even the final sonatas still betray some of his gruffness and a desire to shock, while the slow movements of the early sonatas look forward to later ones in their heart-stopping beauty and eloquence.

As individual works, each is endlessly compelling on its own merits; as a cycle, it moves from transcendence to transcendence, the basic concerns always the same, but the language impossibly varied

Jonathan Biss

As mentioned in my review of his most recent Beethoven sonatas concert at the Wigmore, Biss is a “thinking pianist”, with an acute intellectual curiosity and an ability to articulate the exigencies of learning, maintaining and performing this music, its challenges and its joys, offering remarkable insights, “behind the notes”, as it were, from the point of view of the performer. “Here was vivid expression, vitality and flamboyance; no standing back from the music as if in modest reverence but rather a deep dive into its every nook and cranny to winkle out and reveal details afresh.”

So does Biss achieve a similar spontaneity, vitality and expressivity in the recording? I think so – and the set gets off to an energetic start with the Sonata in C minor, No 5, Op 10/1, its first movement dramatic and commanding, the finale a throbbing, quickfire rondo bookending a slow movement of immense elegance.

Biss also appreciates Beethoven’s humour and wit, and selects pacing, particularly in the up-tempo movements, to highlight this. He often finds the humour in the music which others often gloss over: quirky ritardandos and accelerandos, which may irritate purists, and laugh-out-loud fermatas. 

Purists may also baulk at shifts in pace which are not always marked in the score, but I like the often dizzying, sometimes unruly tempi, as if Beethoven couldn’t get his ideas down fast enough. There’s a strong sense of storytelling here too, with dramatic bursts of narrative presented with a gripping immediacy – the finale of ‘Les Adieux’, for example, overflows with heartfelt joy. Slow movements, meanwhile, become transcendent poetic interludes infused with grace, tenderness and warmth; and these often reveal the true depths of Beethoven’s imagination.

The famous opening movement of the ‘Moonlight’ sonata (too often the subject of rather lugubriously clichéd readings) is hushed and haunting, just teetering on the edge of tragedy, but always eloquent. Biss’s sound is luminous (“moonlit”?!) and liquid, his pace a gently rippling moderato. This is contrasted by a finale of almost unrelenting restlessness, occasionally bordering on a comic hysteria. It’s this kind of playing, combined with airy passagework, dramatic tempi, crisp articulation, and a vivid aural imagination that can harness the breadth of the piano’s sonorities (listen to his pedalling in the finale of the Waldstein and the kaleidoscopic sound effects he achieves), that had me on the edge of my seat for much of Biss’s recent Wigmore concert.

But it’s not all about fleet fingers. Biss gives us thoughtful long-spun melodic lines, well-balanced harmonies, taut, driving rhythms, rumbling tremolandos, dramatic fermatas, carefully-considered voicing, subito dynamic swerves, and colourful orchestration – all devices Beethoven employs to express an amazing range of emotions from joy to despair, wit and uproarious humour, stubbornness and rage, passionate ardour and transcendent serenity. The sheer force of Beethoven’s personality, his capriciousness and inventiveness, is illustrated by Biss with clarity and proportion, beauty and commitment. His Beethoven is direct, lively and spontaneous, ever alert to Beethoven’s shifting moods. And while he undoubtedly respects the composer and his music, Biss does not allow reverence to get in the way of telling an entertaining story (certain other Beethoven pianists would have us believe that because this is “great music”, it must also be Very Serious). Instead, Biss’s approach is delightfully optimistic – one senses his constant curiosity and open-mindedness about this music – and refreshingly liberated from more mainstream interpretative choices. One also has the sense of a pianist with a profound affection for this music which comes from a long association with it, but also an ongoing fascination; for Jonathan Biss, the journey is far from over.

This is, in short, beautiful, thoughtful and incredibly vivid playing, and because of the organisation of the sonatas, each disc feels complete and satisfying in its own right, like a recital. An invigorating addition to the catalogue of Beethoven piano sonatas.

Recommended


Jonathan Biss | Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas is available on the Orchid Classics label.