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Till Fellner's Beethoven Cycle, Part 4

Pianist Till Fellner (photo by Francesco Carrozzini)

Fellner Beethoven Cycle:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Online scores:
No. 25 (op. 79, "Cuckoo") | No. 24 (op. 78, "A Thérèse") | No. 15 (op. 28, "Pastoral") | No. 27 (op. 90) | No. 4 (op. 7)
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Till Fellner crossed the midpoint in his seven-concert cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas in Washington on Sunday night to a capacity crowd at the National Gallery of Art. The Austrian pianist's Beethoven has already included a marvel of a Hammerklavier, a pleasingly unmannered Appassionata, and a colorful, subtle op. 101, with the only reservation one might express being an occasional superficiality in the lesser sonatas. The latest program, of five sonatas from across the first two stylistic periods of Beethoven's career, stood out as the most consistently beautiful, showcasing Fellner's exquisite musical craftsmanship, technically impeccable but never showy or vulgar. Here was the first concert in Fellner's plan that was not centered on one of the major sonatas, and every selection was carefully thought out, in each case with a reading that had its own peculiarities, its own highlights.

The joyous dances of no. 25 (G major, from 1809) were played with no affectation, the airy Tedesca of the first movement without a trace of heaviness. The gentle, ruminative Andante was followed by a sweet Vivace, with each statement of its theme, which gave the sonata its nickname of "Cuckoo," carved with minute differences. No. 24 afforded many opportunities to appreciate Fellner's immaculate voicings, especially in full, loud chords, with each note weighted optimally. Its second movement had just enough of a Hanswurst characterization, slightly mischievous. The relatively early "Pastoral" sonata closed the first half with a more traditional formal approach to the sonata. The first movement had a reflective and idyllic sound, the tempo not too fast and the unusual turn of the development set off enigmatically. The wry B section of the second movement contrasted happily with the melancholy A section, its legato melody underpinned by a graceful détaché touch in the left hand. The scherzo, with its theme of octave-skipping chords, was delightfully understated, followed by a fourth movement that flirted with folksiness without becoming raucous.

Other Articles:

Vivian Schweitzer, Beethoven, and Plenty of It, in a Worldwide Sonata Tour (New York Times, November 2)

Geoff Brown, Till Fellner at the Wigmore Hall (The Times, October 31)

David Weininger, Till Fellner's run of Beethoven continues with this cycle (Boston Globe, October 30)

Ben Finane, Soundboard: Pianist Till Fellner (Playbill Arts, October 26)

Karl Korinek, Kleiner und großer Beethoven (Wiener Zeitung, October 20)
Fellner's polished veneer peeled away slightly only in no. 27, where he allowed some impetuous outbursts to rock the first movement, quite appropriately, without ever seeming to crash outside of his Steinway's palette of sounds. The second movement was indeed singing in tone, in keeping with the detailed tempo indication, but it seemed a little dull at times, an overly perky afterthought to its stormy counterpart. No. 4 had a brilliant tempo in the first movement, never forced, although there was a slight relaxation of the pace to accommodate the sixteenth notes of the closing section of the exposition and recapitulation. Fellner captured precisely the effect Beethoven seemed to want in the recapitulation, which comes out of nowhere, by not drawing attention to the sudden shift back to E-flat major, the modulation pivoting on V7 in first inversion with no drawn-out pedal point or anything.

The gorgeous second movement was almost excruciatingly slow, in a good way, in that every dense chord could be voiced with dizzying control to realize the "gran espressione" that Beethoven said he wanted. Again Fellner showed that he has an enviable handle on Beethoven's wry side in the third movement, a positively sunny Allegro, with a Minore section that drew no attention to itself but in which every note rustled. Fellner took the rondo theme of the last movement at just the right, graceful tempo, allowing the sforzando octave on B-flat, where the theme seems to run aground temporarily (m. 11 the first time), to decay just enough so that it just melted into the final phrase. Once again, just as Beethoven indicated, the piece simply drifted off in its final bars, into a dreamy silence. Sadly, we apparently missed out on the encore Fellner has played with this program in other venues, the miniature op. 49, no. 1. Clap louder and longer, Washingtonians!

The fifth and sixth concerts in Till Fellner's Beethoven cycle are scheduled for the National Gallery of Art (February 7, 2010) and the Austrian Embassy (March 22, 2010).

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