Jonathan Biss tells Christopher Morley about the pressures of a busy international career ahead of his Birmingham concert.
Many of the pianists it has been my privilege to interview over the years have proved themselves thoughtful, illuminating and articulate in their responses to my questions, and Jonathan Biss ranks among the most rewarding of them all.
Though still only 27, he has already been the recipient of an impressive clutch of awards and accolades, including being the first and only American ever to be invited to participate in the BBC's New Generation Artist programme.
His parents live in Boston, his home is in New York, and the pressures of jetting around the world on a busy international career do cause some tensions.
"I guess the way I would put it is I'm still looking for the right balance between being away from home and being at home, being onstage and not on the stage," he tells me at his London hotel, back from a private family visit to Israel, packing in some rehearsals, and then setting off for a major tour in Germany.
"I love what I do, but sometimes I have a feeling it would be nice to have a life at home that was about more than just doing my laundry and collecting my mail and then leaving again."
But he agrees that at the moment, it's a thing that has to be done.
"I think it's true at this stage of my career I need to be playing a lot, in a lot of different places, but I also think that I also need to be devoting time to learning repertoire, having quiet time just to work, because there are a lot of ways in which I think you improve by playing, but other ways in which you improve by not playing, by having time off, working on things slowly and carefully, and not just worrying about the next concert," he says.
The kind of pieces he is working through slowly are amongst the greatest staples of the repertoire, as he describes.
"The two big goals I have in terms of repertoire are the 32 Beethoven sonatas and the 27 Mozart concertos, which I am working on - I add a couple of each each year! It would be wonderful to have three months off each year to work on things like the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata - which I haven't yet played in public - and not do anything else. But I do manage to carve out time!"
After study at Indiana University "which is an excellent music school" until the age of 17, Biss moved on to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, to study with Leon Fleisher, during the period in which the much-revered pianist was regaining the use of his right hand after a shattering illness several decades before.
"If I've got my dates right, the first twohanded concert he played after the huge hiatus was 1995 or 96, and I started studying with him in 1997. It was the beginning of a process, he was working through a lot of things, still trying a lot of different things.
"It was very exciting to know him and to be with him during those years, and I don't think anyone was more moved than I was to hear the first Carnegie Hall recital he gave after 40 years in 2003.
"I go back occasionally to play for Mr Fleisher, and I'm lucky enough to have a collection of other people I play for and who I ask for advice from. Like most musicians I tend to always feel like a student, but I don't have a full-time teacher and I'm not in a school."
Though there are no full-time teachers, Biss has several role-models. "Obviously Mr Fleisher, who was really an enormous influence on me.
"Beyond him, I spent a number of summers in Marlboro, and got to know Richard Goode, Mitsuko Uchida and Andras Schiff very well, and they've all been in different ways role-models, and I think the seriousness with which they go about their work, their absolute integrity, the respect for the score that one hears in all of their playing, those are qualities which had a
big impact on me. I'd like to think I've taken something from all of these people."
We are speaking here of things far beyond mere virtuoso spectacle. "The more virtuoso aspects of piano-playing are not those that I find most interesting. To give any performance success you need a tremendous amount of technical ability, of ease with the instrument, but I tend to think of those qualities as means rather than ends.
"The qualities that draw me to any piece of music in the first place are emotional content, so I think, for me, that's the reason I'm playing, and technical aspects are more just a way of getting closer inside the music."
And Jonathan Biss gratefully acknowledges the riches of music available to his instrument.
"One of the great things about being a pianist is that there's wonderful repertoire which is enormous and which is wide, concertos, solo music, chamber music, Lieder, all of which I love to play. But I think the repertoire I keep coming back to, over and over again, is the central
Germanic, from Bach through to the Second Viennese School, maybe with a special emphasis on Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann. You know it's not a terribly original answer, but you're right when you agree 'you don't get any better than that'.
"I'm sure if I'm lucky enough to be playing the piano 60 years from now I'll still feel I've made only a slight fraction of headway towards understanding that music."
Biss is currently touring Germany with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner conducting, performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto no.3. Is there ever a risk that so many back-to-back performances of the same piece induces staleness?
"I've had occasion when I've played a piece several times in a row where I've had a comfort level where it can be a little bit dangerous, but when you play pieces that are that great, you always see new things in them.
"I keep coming back to something which Artur Schnabel said, which is that he only played music which was greater than any
performance of it ever could be. And I really can't imagine ever reaching a stage where this concerto stops being challenging and stops feeling new, because every performance you experiment with new things, and sometimes they're unsuccessful, sometimes they are successful, but when they're successful they're just suggesting new possibilities, it's just an endless cycle of discovery with pieces like that."
And next Thursday he plays the same piece at Symphony Hall, with the CBSO and under a different conductor, Yannick Nezet-Seguin. He is relishing the prospect of working on the concerto with different forces.
"I learn a lot by playing with different orchestras and different conductors. You have to be flexible, and it forces me to clarify my own musical priorities. There are certain things that you have to compromise on, and there are other things that I find myself unable to compromise on, and being thrust into different situations, you learn what they are, which I find very instructive."
He has already worked with some of the most revered conductors in the business, including Daniel Barenboim, Sir Colin Davis, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, and Michael Tilson Thomas.
"I think I've been very lucky, because things have gone professionally beyond my wildest expectations, and on the whole they've been extremely generous with me.
"I have to say some of my nicest collaborations have been with conductors who were also pianists, because they know the music from a tactile point of view, and they know what it means to have to play the piece as well as to be inside the rehearsal process and directing the orchestra. I can imagine those collaborations being very sympathetic, though being the conductor, having played the piece yourself, the temptation to direct the interpretation must be very strong!"
Jonathan Biss plays Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 3 with the CBSO at Symphony Hall next Thursday (7.30pm) and next Saturday (7pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.