Early this year I picked up a new recording of Schumann’s Fantasie and Kreisleriana by the young American pianist Jonathan Biss. While I enjoyed (and still enjoy) the disc, it didn’t bowl me over. What did strike me most about the recording was Mr Biss’ superb tonal control and dynamic control, especially at the lower end of the dynamic spectrum. Always a good sign: Anyone it seems can play loud; relatively fewer pianists seem to revel in suppler playing. Maybe I’d buy his next disc, maybe I wouldn’t, depending on what he recorded. Well, he recorded some Beethoven, so I bought the disc. The first thing I noticed is the shrewd programming. Sure, a couple named sonatas show up, including the Pathétique, but rather than Op 31/2 or 57 showing up, it’s Op 28 that one gets to hear. And then one also gets two late works: Opp 90 and 109. A rather well-programmed disc. How does it compare to the Schumann? It offers another level of playing.

The disc opens with the weakest performance – and it’s still very good. The Pathétique is perhaps over-recorded (Nah!), and it is difficult for any currently active pianist to record a standout version. It’s a youthful, spirited, almost revolutionary piece. One must take a youthful, spirited, almost revolutionary approach. Or maybe not. (Of course, one’s definition of revolutionary colors one’s acceptance of pianists’ definitions of revolutionary.) Biss opens the Grave with a bold, strong, forte (but not fortissimo) chord, and lets it sustain just that little extra bit. Good so far. The playing that follows is less imposing, but it maintains tension nicely, and it boasts a warm, rounded tone, and superb dexterity. The Allegro di molto e con brio is suitably quick and alert and possessed of drive, but it’s not particularly intense. It’s more about youthful drama than true angst. Now, the Adagio cantabile, that’s something a bit different. Here Biss’ pianistic tendencies pay bigger dividends. The music is warm, lyrical, tender – even delicate at times. These traits combined with a superbly maintained yet never obtrusive tension and a slightly quick speed make the movement a delight. The concluding Rondo is taken at a nice pace (though I usually prefer something a bit quicker), and Biss manages to allow the lyrical aspects of the music to be equal to the more dramatic aspects. A fine achievement indeed, and a fine recording.

Now that the dud’s out of the way, let’s get to some better music making. The next piece is the great Pastorale, one of Beethoven’s finest sonatas. Here Biss shines. The opening Allegro is flowing, lyrical, and graceful, but that’s not all: Biss also plays with superb articulation and beyond expert dynamic and tonal control, and not a little sense of expanded scale when called for. And then there’s the clarity. Rarely has the music played by each hand been so beautifully and perfectly realized; rarely have the ascending and descending chords of the left hand underlying the even more lyrical right been so clearly audible and perfectly crafted. Okay, so the middle section isn’t the most incredibly intense, but it boasts top-notch control and more than ample power. The movement’s coda is gentle and beautiful. The Andante is superbly paced, and possesses as much clarity as the opener, with an incessantly pokey left hand playing alongside a magnificently singing right. The middle section is more or less conventional, but it’s delivered impeccably. The Scherzo sounds jocular, incisive, and rhythmically it’s both supple and driven. Biss brings out the humor by scampering around the keyboard, and he makes the middle section lighter than normal. The work closes with a Rondo characterized by a gently rocking left hand and a supremely lyrical right. The music gradually builds to a satisfying climax before starting all over. The middle section is tense and has a nicely snappy rhythm, adding superb contrast, and the work ends with a swift but not rushed gallop leading to a strong but not crushing end. A superb performance.

The same can be written about Op 90. Biss opens strong, delivering some powerful though perfectly controlled playing, and he manages to maintain a high level of musical tension even in the quietest music. He plays up the dynamic contrasts throughout to good effect. He also throws in some (only slightly subdued) fiery playing during the niftily nimble runs. This being late (or near-late) LvB, Biss does something even better. He manages to make the music glide, even in fraught, chattering sections. The second movement is warm, rich, and unfailingly lyrical throughout, even during the tenser passages. The music pours forth in glorious fashion.

But it is in Op 109 where Biss delivers his best performance of the disc. The Vivace ma non troppo opens softly but swiftly, and almost immediately establishes that late-LvB sound so important to a successful recording. As the volume picks up, the playing assumes an edgier sound, though it’s still wonderfully rounded, and Biss’ unique incisive beauty comes to the fore. Poetic, glowing, and transcendent, Biss seems right at home in this piece. He plays with impressive power when needed, and his command of the piece is total. But it is in the whisper-quiet, delicate playing that he most enchants. The Prestissimo thunders into being, and pushes forward with ample drive but no hints of relentlessness. Even better, a breathtaking musical oasis emerges between 1’01” and 1’22” in which time itself almost seems to disappear. Then comes the concluding Andante and variations, and Biss achieves something better yet. The main theme is achingly beautiful, searching, and genuinely moving. It’s a glorious open. The first variation, well, it’s almost better still. Slow, meticulous, and positively glowing, it almost floats in aural space, timeless. The second variation is more playful in a decidedly angelic way, never pushed, never rushed – it simply glides along. The third variation is suitably fast and groovy, but maintains an ethereal feel, even in the most physical passages. And that right hand run! The fourth variation backs off into a more contemplative, serious mood, but not only does it not descend from the exalted levels of the previous playing, it ascends to a new level. The fifth variation is deep-keyed, probing, and vital, but restrained by ultimate good taste. The final variation is serene and gorgeous and ascends to the greatest artistic heights. Throw in some 111 significant trills, and one has a final variation of extraordinary achievement. The final restatement of the original theme is sublime and moving and beyond reproach. Biss, though still quite young, has managed to deliver a great recording of one of the greatest of all piano sonatas.

It should be pretty clear that I like this disc a whole lot. Biss knows his Beethoven, and his playing is absolutely mesmerizing. I can’t necessarily say that he achieves, say, Gulda or Kempff level greatness, but among younger pianists out there recording Beethoven, he’s the best I’ve heard so far. I definitely want to hear more Beethoven from him, and I simply must hear him in Schubert. A talent to watch. One of the best discs of the year.

Sound is warm, and decidedly up-to-date, if perhaps a bit processed. Biss’ breathing intrudes here and there, too, for those bothered by such inconsequential things.