Clear-eyed Fellner returns with three late-Beethoven Sonatas

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / October 14, 2010

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As any keyboard devotee will tell you, the late-Beethoven Sonatas occupy a hallowed place in the piano literature as the majestic summing up of the composer’s work in the genre. Musicologists and program note essayists may parse the many innovations, but for reasons that ultimately defy formal analysis, these works have come across to generations of performers and listeners as somehow otherworldly, representing, as Proust once wrote about a composer’s late style, “the transposition of profundity into terms of sound.’’

Taking on three of these late works in a single program requires a brave and serious-minded player, and the young Austrian pianist Till Fellner proved to possess both qualities on Tuesday night in his recital at Boston Conservatory’s Seully Hall. Over the last two years, Fellner has been traversing the complete cycle of sonatas in various cities around the world. You might think a major presenter in Boston would have signed on for the full cycle, but no one did, so gratitude goes to Boston Conservatory for at least hosting Fellner twice in two seasons on its Piano Masters series. An overflowing crowd on Tuesday night packed into the small recital hall and listened in rapt silence as Fellner set off for the dizzying expressive peaks of the Sonatas Opp. 109, 110, and 111.

Or perhaps not so dizzying after all. In Fellner’s slightly reserved account of the Sonata No. 30 (Op. 109), he seemed to aim for rigor above reverie, textural clarity above poetic fantasy, with intriguing though less dramatically compelling results. The climactic passages toward the end of the third movement, for instance, often arrive in crashing waves of sound, as a moment of catharsis that anticipates the music’s quiet glowing return to the silence from which it first arose. On Tuesday Fellner prepared the surging passages with somewhat measured tempos, and when the climax arrived you could hear every note with marvelous clarity, but its impact was dimmed.

Fellner’s approach grew more persuasive in the Sonata No. 31 (Op. 110). In the first movement, tempos again felt slightly measured but he turned the pacing to his advantage with the elegant placement of chords and unusually vivid shaping of the expressive line. The second movement made its argument with sharply jabbing accents, and a few times, Fellner seemed to deliberately land chords a split-second early so as to telegraph the mercurial nature of the music. The opening Adagio of the third movement benefited from some of the freest, most searching playing of the evening; the concluding fugue brought to mind Fellner’s impressive mastery of Bach.

The closing Arietta of the Sonata No. 32 (Op. 111) is desert island Beethoven, music whose core sense of wisdom and calm places it far beyond the reach of language. Fellner’s account was always engaging yet seldom transporting. At points the music seemed to walk when you wished it would float. There were also moments of appealingly subtle restraint and directness, not to mention a few of the most evenly ringing trills I have ever heard. Lucky is the pianist with a long career ahead in which to return to this body of work, presumably making new discoveries each time, or finding ways to say more with what one has already found.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at


At: Boston Conservatory,

Tuesday night