Life & Culture

Interview: Jonathan Biss

The pianist who loves Beethoven… and Monty Python


How serious do classical musicians have to be? The young American pianist Jonathan Biss has been proving that sophisticated artistry and off-the-wall humour are in no way mutually exclusive. A glance at his website quickly shows that his tale has an unusual twist. "Jonathan Biss was born in 1980; his professional debut preceded this event by several months, when he performed, prenatally, the Mozart A Major Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall. Subsequent performances have shown greater independence, though they have also been more likely to send listeners running in the opposite direction, wildly searching for ear, nose and throat specialists, and handguns."

Biss may specialise in surreal humour, but at the piano he is an exceptionally fine, sensitive musician; critics have heaped praise on the intelligence and integrity of his performances.

When you meet him, he can seem ultra-serious at first, looking older than his 31 years. But, he says: "I hope humour is part of my approach to music. There's nothing that will turn me off a performance of a piece more than the sense that it's unrelenting and heavy. I think the aspect of playfulness is one of the most important things there is to be communicated in music. I hope that my brow is not so thoroughly furrowed all the time that that doesn't come through."

He comes from a distinguished musical family: that "prenatal" performance might be explained by the fact that his mother is the celebrated violinist, Miriam Fried. His father is the violinist and conductor, Paul Biss, and his paternal grandmother was the cellist, Raya Garbusova, who gave the world première of Samuel Barber's Cello Concerto.

Biss grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, where his parents taught at the university's well-known music faculty; thus he was steeped in a profoundly artistic atmosphere from day one.

Garbusova stopped playing before he was old enough to hear her. To him, she was "first of all a grandmother - everything I did she'd say was great! - but it was all rooted in music. We found a letter at home from Pablo Casals, where he describes her as 'without doubt the finest cellist I have ever heard'."

Biss, whose maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors, says his Jewish identity is vital to him. "I think it oozes from my every pore! I regard the importance that the arts, music especially, had in our household as a Jewish-related quality and, because that's so central to my life, that's big."

The pianist is coming to the UK this month for three recitals. "The programme is a palindrome," he explains. "At either end there's a Beethoven sonata: respectively, Op 10 No 1 and Les Adieux. Then moving inwards, two Janacek works, and at the centre is Chopin."

Still, Biss's biggest musical challenge at the moment is one that is widely regarded as the ultimate pianistic marathon: the complete cycle of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, which he has started to record at the rate of one disc a year. "For as long as I can remember, no music has meant more to me than the Beethoven sonatas," he says. "I don't think there's any other body of music that asks more questions, and that draws you in as a performer so deeply. I always knew I had to find a way to do it.

The first disc has just been released on Onyx Classics. "I'm 31 now," he adds, "and by the time I'm 40, God willing, the whole cycle will be done.

Biss has recently begun to teach at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he himself studied. "Am I really old enough to impart wisdom?" he jokes. "Teaching is a way of being engaged with music that is not entirely self-focused, unlike preparing for concerts. It's also amazingly helpful to me: when you are forced to articulate the things you do in your own playing without thinking about them, it strengthens them."

Away from the piano, Biss writes - he has been busy on a 20,000-word essay entitled Beethoven's Shadow for the new Kindle Single e-book series. "It almost killed me. My respect for writers was always great, but now it's even greater."

Biss spends a lot of time on planes. In flight, he turns to comedy. "I can sit and watch DVDs of Monty Python for hours," he declares happily.

That might explain a lot.

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