Music review: The RSNO & Jonathan Biss

US pianist Jonathan Biss
US pianist Jonathan Biss
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Jonathan Biss’ Beethoven/5 project to commission five contemporary composers to write a piano concerto based on one of Beethoven’s is a fascinating exercise. Inspired by the first piano concerto, Sally Beamish’s Piano Concerto No.3 City Stanzas subjects the music to the challenges of modern urban living.

RSNO & Jonathan Biss ****

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Like the beginning of the Beethoven, Beamish’s first movement ­­­– Burlesque – opens with racing scale passages but these quickly fragment into an improvised jazz style on the piano with the orchestra providing a cacophony of street sounds. The central Requiem is bleak with ominous timpani and sighing strings framing the wistful piano lines. These two moods merge in the highly rhythmic Rondo where modern life marches to Beethoven’s heartbeat. Whilst Beamish beautifully captures the essence of Beethoven in this concerto, there were moments when the orchestration could have been more fulsome.

It was intriguing to hear echo’s of Beamish’s work in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 also performed by Biss. He is an impeccable player whose thoughtful approach shone through in spite of conductor Peter Oundjian overworking the orchestra to the point of flatlining any Beethovian sparkle with a ponderously slow tempo. In the largo, Biss’ pellucid tones were enhanced by some exquisite clarinet, horn and bassoon playing. With the piano kicking off the third movement, Biss led the orchestra into a brisk, exhilarating rondo full of wit and sparkle.

Brahms’ last symphony, No.4 in E minor, is packed with melodies and is a wonderful showcase for the musicians who spun out these expansive tunes with aplomb.