The celebrated American pianist Jonathan Biss is recording the complete 32 Beethoven sonatas at the rate of one CD a year. He plans to finish it as he turns 40 – and still has some way to go. This third disc presents three contrasting pieces, each of strongly defined character. The ‘Pastorale’ Sonata, Op.28, is a mostly sunny yet occasionally enigmatic piece, its subtitle sparked by the drone basses and lilting rhythms of its outer movements. The G major Sonata Op.31/1 features plenty of humour, the first movement apparently a skit on pianists’ tendencies to play with uncoordinated hands. Finally the ‘Waldstein’, Op.53, finds Beethoven at his mid-career peak, with an elemental energy that seems to foreshadow his late sonatas.
Biss is at his finest in the wittiest, most intimate moments of these ever-mesmerising works. His lightness of touch and the subtlety of his musical smile pay dividends in the relaxed, loping gait of Op.28 and the quicksilver irony of Op.31/1. The great ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, though, inhabits a different world. It needs to reach towards something visionary and transcendent, and has often been best served – especially in the heights of the final movement – by pianists who can offer a transparent, colourful tone and the ability to catch fire and soar. Biss is not quite there yet; he remains a little too deliberate and dogged to quit the earth for the flames.