TILL FELLNER, PIANO- ALL-BEETHOVEN
By Gary Tischler
Most worthwhile efforts have small beginnings, and this is also true for the Embassy Series, the unique musical events put together every year by its director, Jerome Barry, now in its 17th season.
Barry began his series of concerts/receptions at Washington embassies and ambassador’s residences (and occasionally cultural centers) with a core spirit, with many early offerings held at European embassies like the Embassy of Austria, and the Federal Republic of Germany.
The cultural core of the early concerts was the music of what may be Europe’s greatest cultural contribution to the world—a kind of library of great 18th and 19th century composers from Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, the Strausses, Haydn and others whose compositions amount to the great and lasting saving grace of the German-speaking nations and peoples of the continent.
With them came the pianists, the violinist, the quartets and ensembles and trios, the flautists and cello players, young as well as world-renowned, to play the works of European geniuses in settings and atmospheres unique to the music. Recitals, solo performances, sonatas, the E-minors and B majors, and all the technical bravura and skills are all important here, they are the missals for the body of European music’s masses and scriptures.
Over time, the Embassy series concerts expanded into the wide and wider reaches of the world, embracing the rest of Europe, Russia, the Slavic countries, Latin America and the Middle East, and with it came a wider scope of music, with different sounds, different emphases, different musical instruments, for that matter, spring from the fountain of different cultures and traditions.
But the Series always returns to the great composers, the great wellspring of European music, and even now such concerts are unique in and of themselves.
In that sense, the recent appearance—historical and characteristic—of Till Fellner, the rising-star pianist at the Embassy of Austria on a Sunday afternoon was so illustrative of the performance of classical music that is really classical beyond the music.
Fellner came to Washington to bring to conclusion his project of playing the complete cycle of Beethoven Sonatas, all 32 of them, on a journey that included New York, Washington, Tokyo, London, Paris and, appropriately, Vienna, where Fellner was born, and which is home to a gilded, triumphant musical reputation and aura.
On the Sunday afternoon of his performance before a sold-out audience, Fellner completed the cycle by playing Sonata 30 E major, op. 109, Sonata 31 a flat major, op 110 and Sonata 32, C minor, op 111. The numbers, of course, tell you absolutely nothing unless you are an aficionado of Beethoven’s sonatas, or know your way around the little manifestos that describe how a piece will be played as in (for No. 32): Maestoso—Allegro con brio ed appassionata Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile.
This is not meant to be even remotely a critical piece, which, in any case, this writer isn’t qualified to do. But I’m pretty good on history, setting, atmosphere, feeling and response. And I know a super-star when I hear one—I mean here Beethoven—and a budding super star when I see one. The Sonatas Fellner played are works from 1820-1822, and music history suggests that they were meant to be of a piece.
Fellner performs, behaves, and plays like a man dealing with a masterpiece. This is not just a question of technique, but a kind of presence, where the artists become a priest –my fingers to God—who is inspired, and inspiring to listen to. All great pieces of art, and perhaps most especially of music, have a religious quality to them even if composed, written and created by agnostics or atheists. They are offerings meant to penetrate the great void and give it density, nuance, glory, suppleness, a kind of KNOWING, they are like sacrificial smoke rising up in swirls. The Sonatas do that like King Lear’s lament, Rembrandt’s touch of light.
Great musicians always in their own ways behave accordingly. There is a ritual involved, and a pact with audience and player. Unlike music and performances from other areas of the world, which have aspects of naked emotion and celebration in them, a kind of intense sociability, concerts like this one require, and always have, a certain embrace of stillness. The object is not to clap your hands—later, later—but to sit on them, or stroke your mustache, or listen intently with your eyes, your heart, and that part of the brain that can hear a lapse in technique, a missed key and the buzz of a fly two blocks away.
In a sense, concerts like these are indeed like being in church, it’s smoke and incense and faith and appreciation, apt enough since much of European composition begins with church and ended up there too.
Fellner has the requisites of a star player. He knows it’s not enough to wear a black tuxedo to the chair, you have to spread out the tails in a certain way, you must every now and then, with a shake of the head and a wave of the fingers coming up from the keys, add human drama to the notes. At 39, he has the nonetheless boyish good looks that seem to be built into the genes of future pianists, so that when he bows, it is a polite, but not quite humble act.
No need for humility, in any case. Playing the last three sonatas seemed not just a climax to a personal musical journey, but a journey in and of itself where movements soar, tremble, and achieve a grand serenity in the end.