Jonathan Biss on Schumann, Beethoven and why ‘piano is daily bread’

The first time Jonathan Biss asked for piano lessons, he was 4. His musician parents said he was too young, but he kept asking.

“There was music everywhere when I was growing up,” recalls Biss, who soon enough played piano at home alongside his mother, violinist Miriam Fried, and his father, violist-violinist Paul Biss. “As I got older, it became clear that music would be my profession. I perceived music as a language and a totally natural form of communication.”

The Philadelphia-based concert pianist, 37, performs Sunday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. For this edited conversation he spoke by phone about his nine-year, nine-disc recording cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, as well as his bestselling ebook, “Beethoven’s Shadow,” and his popular online music course.

You have long been drawn to the music of Robert Schumann. Could you talk about your feelings for Schumann’s music?

I’ve always felt that Schumann speaks to me in a way that’s very different from how I related to other composers. I’m moved by a pretty huge range of music of different composers and in awe of the music of many composers, but it’s really only in Schumann that I feel is translating my inner life into sound. There is something in his music and its poetry, and it’s an unbelievable gift to me to have that.


Your passion for Beethoven, which you also will play at the Wallis, is not so personal, is it?

Not being consumed with Beethoven doesn’t really seem like an option to me. I feel there’s no big human question that Beethoven isn’t interested in and doesn’t address in a powerful way. He’s so much more encompassing than any other composer, and the force of his personality is so much stronger than of any other composer. Whether you write music or play it, or whatever your personal tastes are, it’s hard not to be pulled toward Beethoven.

You often include both Beethoven and Schumann in your concerts.

Great pieces never stop being interesting. A lot of music is good, and you move on. Pieces that are great evolve as you evolve. Beethoven 4 is something I have played in concerts for 15 years now, and there’s still a lot to wonder at.

I think with great composers there is an element of mystery about them that never goes away and that I wouldn’t want to go away. Sometimes you hear talk about how classical music needs to be demystified, and I’m totally against that. The mystery of classical music is its greatest strength. There are definitely things about Beethoven and Schumann that I have learned by playing them for years and years, but there is still something that is unknowable and I cherish that.

You’ve written about how recordings influence the way we listen to concerts.

Even though I am a person who has recorded a lot, and it’s an important part of my life, there’s no question that I have ambivalence about it. The majority of music we all consume is recorded music, rather than music that we hear live or play ourselves. I think there’s something off about that. Because music is recorded in an artificial way, it has confused the way we listen. A live performance is animated by things that never happened before and never can happen again. That includes accidents, surprises, moments of inspiration or just seeing how a line might unfold. So much of what we listen to in recordings is not about that.

At your alma mater, the Curtis Institute of Music, you lead the online course “Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas.” Do you have advice for young musicians?

Don’t allow yourself to forget what you love about music. The work of being a musician is hard and grueling and sometimes frustrating. It’s terribly important that you keep in contact every day with the side of you that drew you to it in the first place.

How do you do that yourself?

I’m not someone who practices a huge amount, but I don’t like to miss a day. Somehow being at the piano is daily bread for me. I need to have some contact with the keyboard or I don’t go to bed feeling good.

Jonathan Biss, piano

Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: Sunday, Oct. 8 at 7:30 p.m.


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