This review is an Ionarts exclusive.
The second installment of Till Fellner's Washington cycle of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas drew me to the Embassy of Austria on Wednesday night. The Embassy Series is hosted the next part of the cycle, following the first concert at the National Gallery of Art this past December. Beyond the obvious challenges of a complete Beethoven cycle -- the most difficult sonatas like the Hammerklavier to be hurdled and the sheer quantity of music to be learned and memorized -- much of the impact of the exercise can come from unexpected interpretations of the lesser sonatas. For his second program, Fellner ended with the most difficult selection, the Appassionata, op. 57, but led up to it with the first three sonatas, op. 2.
The level of difficulty of the first two sonatas in op. 2 seems to indicate that Beethoven intended them to be options for gifted amateurs to play. It is perhaps easy not to do much with the first two sonatas, just let them unfold and play them with as much fluidity and ease as possible. In his live recorded cycle, András Schiff goes too far in the opposite direction, driving the tempi and seeking out the most unusual interpretative choices, while Paul Lewis prefers a mellower approach, more even but more drab as well. Fellner seemed least engaged by the F minor sonata (op. 2, no. 1), mastering it technically (especially in the brilliant and tender final movement), but not digging too deep interpretatively (for example, doing nothing with the con espressione marking at the last eight bars of the exposition and recapitulation). Here in the second movement was the only real technical slip of the entire evening, on the downbeat of m. 17, the sort of minor error probably attributable to a lapse of concentration, reinforcing the perception that Fellner's mind was elsewhere.
The A major sonata (op. 2, no. 2) was pleasingly frothy, with a crisp upbeat tempo in the first movement, nothing heavy in the main theme and a second theme, set unexpectedly by Beethoven in the minor dominant, that glided suavely. The third and fourth movements had a similar airy feel, especially the gossamer runs up to the rondo's main theme, which occur in a score of slightly different forms. The C major sonata has more technical demands, and pairing it with op. 57 gave the second half of this recital considerably more weight. Fellner launched the Allegro con brio first movement in a very fast tempo, to which he did not always remain faithful, but it gave the piece an unsettled yet exciting character, especially the evanescent cadenza that in the coda, a Rococo filigree of little cue notes, just before the final statement of the A theme. Here the second movement was the high point, with loud and soft sections voiced so carefully, and the crossed-hands appoggiatura sections (heard first at m. 19) were tender and sweet, the lack of emphasis on the accented notes allowing the chromatic colorations to gleam.
The third movement was in a rollicking but strict one, and the superb fourth movement seemed to show most Fellner's studies with Alfred Brendel, played in a straightforward and crisp way, no frills added or gross fluctuations of tempo to mark the form. Still, the success of this portion depended ultimately on how good Fellner's op. 57 would be, just as the next installment will hang on the "Hammerklavier." Again, he may have been a skosh too daring with tempo choice at the outset, but it settled into a pace that was still fast but a little more comfortable. The sforzandi crashed and the many arpeggios were fiercely played, making for a technically prodigious performance that frayed only slightly in the coda. The big chords of the second movement were expertly voiced, keeping full sonorities clear, and each variation had a distinct character while the melody remained distinct. Brendel's influence again surfaced, or so it seemed, in the last movement, set in a self-disciplined tempo that was just the right amount of non troppo, meaning that the ear could pick out all of the inner gears of this music turning individually and making the ultra-fast coda stand out all the more.
The evening's only disappointment was that Fellner did not offer some Bach as an encore, a shame because his Bach is so good and he seemed to have enjoyed the possibilities of the instrument under his hands. In an interesting move, Fellner did not play on the Austrian Embassy's Bösendorfer, favoring instead a Steinway borrowed locally and delivered especially for his recital. When asked after the recital if he had tried the Bösendorfer Fellner noted laconically, as he sipped a well-earned glass of beer, "Yes -- burn it."
The third installment of Till Fellner's Beethoven cycle will feature the three sonatas of op. 10 and the redoubtable op. 106 ("Hammerklavier"), scheduled for the Austrian Embassy later in the spring (May 11, 7:30 pm).
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.