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Till Fellner

Austrian pianist Till Fellner's last recital at the National Gallery of Art was one of the high points of my listening last season: in fact, it was on my list of the year's ten best concerts, as pointed out in the program notes (.PDF file) for Fellner's concert at the NGA on Sunday night. Both concerts have made it clear that Fellner has recovered from the symptoms of tinnitus, mainly an irritating sensitivity to loud sounds, that forced him to cancel several concerts in 2005. Fellner's 2004 recording of the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, as well as his live performance of the three-part inventions last year, showed Fellner to be a fine new Bach player at the piano, but what about his Beethoven?

Fellner also played one of the early Beethoven sonatas last year, making me envious of Vienna and London, where he was planning a complete Beethoven cycle (see the complete online score -- Vol. 1 and Vol. 2). As it turns out Sunday's concert was the first installment of Washington's own Beethoven cycle from Fellner, co-sponsored by the Embassy of Austria and the Embassy Series. Fellner opted to begin with the three sonatas of op. 31, the same set played by András Schiff in October, followed by Maurizio Pollini, who played only the second of the three. Fellner's approach seemed closest to that of Paul Lewis, whose new complete cycle on disc is one of the most pleasing, not least for its polish and restraint. No. 1 had a more cushioned staccato attack than Schiff's biting stabs, and Fellner brought out the melodic touches in the first-movement development's arpeggiation nicely. The second movement, taken at a brisk pace, was held strictly in tempo and yet with striking sotto voce effects and delicacy in the filigree textures. The amiable reading of the third movement was quirky but with an admirable restraint.

Fellner's "Tempest" was not as poetic as Pollini's, which captured the foggy mist of the opening measures. Fellner, by contrast, seemed to cast the fast parts of the first movement as more Caliban than Ariel, with the monster periodically lost in reverie at the isle "full of noises." Here the second movement also stood out for its unusual tempo, in this case very slow, with murky rumbles of thunder subtly voiced in the crossing hand. Of all three readings heard recently, however, Fellner's third movement was the best, held consistently to a gentle tempo, the smooth touch allowing inner voices to blossom and pleasing contrasts of dynamics and colors to emerge. Fellner's op. 31/3 began with a detached, playful character, not clownish, but sort of breathless and talkative. The humor in the crashing dynamic shifts of the second movement made this scherzo a rather wry joke, more arched eyebrow than elbow jabbed in the ribs. After a third movement that was graceful but ultimately a little plain, the bravura tempo of the fourth was a thrill.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Mining Beethoven, One Opus at a Time (Washington Post, December 9)

Vivien Schweitzer, Beethoven Sonatas, a Touch Tempered (New York Times, December 7)
Fellner paired the op. 31 set with the Beethoven sonata that is usually my favorite, op. 101 (losing occasionally, depending on my mood, to op. 109). This was where the recital kicked into high gear, from the first movement's fragile, introspective introduction, full of longing. Fellner kept the pervasive dotted rhythms of the second movement crisp but still melodic, with a B section that was lively without turning manic. In the third movement, there was a gloomy thickness, as if the air were laden with musky incense, exactly the right atmosphere for that weighty, mysterious music, and the fourth had a rolling fluidity that, in keeping with the tempo marking, felt determined but not too fast. Fellner had an understated way with the famous fugal section, a dark beginning that grew, allowing the contrapuntal developments (stretto, inversion, and so on) to be heard clearly. It was not Beethoven that grabbed you by the lapels with its force (pace Barenboim), which was what it made it so convincing.

The next installment of Till Fellner's Beethoven cycle will feature opp. 2 and 57, scheduled for the Austrian Embassy this spring (March 8). At the end of her review, Anne Midgette notes that François-Frédéric Guy is offering all 32 Beethoven sonatas within a 10-day period at La Maison Francaise (January 16 to 25). I have been listening to his recent Beethoven recordings, too (review forthcoming).

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