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Jonathan Biss Uncovers A Brahms Blind Spot

Vocal duets by Brahms took pianist Jonathan Biss by surprise.
J. Katz
Vocal duets by Brahms took pianist Jonathan Biss by surprise.

Yesterday we asked if you had any musical blind spots — genres, bands or pieces you know you should love and listen to but don't, or haven't gotten around to yet. Today, pianist Jonathan Biss gives us his take on the question.

Is there music I should listen to? I try to avoid musical "shoulds" — after all, loving the music you love isn't a matter of choice, is it? But in fairness, I do occasionally wonder about this. I'll hear a Haydn symphony, it'll invariably be amazing, a marvel of invention and life, and I question why I only know, say, 25 of them, when there are more than a hundred. The same holds true for his string quartets, piano trios, and piano sonatas.

Another example: Not long ago, when I heard the Brahms vocal Duets, Op. 20, I was blown away. I asked one of the singers afterwards if there were many of these duets and was informed (perhaps more condescendingly than was strictly necessary) that there are scores of them — along with large numbers of choral songs, of which I am equally ignorant. Now, I've heard multiple performances of nearly every chamber music work of Brahms, but these duets, which on first listening struck me as in no way inferior, had been entirely unknown to me.

Why does this happen? Why is it that these huge volumes of first-rate music never make the hit parade? I imagine that part of the answer involves our need for musical "favorites" — pieces that we come back to again and again, which thrill us and move us in ways that are reliable — even though, being great music, they also change along with us.

But every time I hear the Haydn symphonies or Brahms duets of the world, I feel sorry that so many people who probably would love this music have no idea it exists. On the upside, it's a nice reminder that there will always be more wonderful music to discover. And actually, that's a pretty good compensation.

Jonathan Biss is the author of "Beethoven's Shadow." His new recording Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Vol. 1 is on the Onyx label.

Have a musical blind spot or two of your own? Tell us about it in the comments section.

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Jonathan Biss
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