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February 9, 2010

Pianist Till Fellner makes compelling Baltimore debut

Till FellnerIt was finally possible Monday night, at least for a couple of hours, to forget all about the whole bleak business that fell from the sky over the weekend and messed up so much of our lives and routines. I spent those hours at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where Till Fellner, the extraordinary Austrian pianist, played an all-Beethoven recital that had been called off on Saturday because of you-know-what. This Baltimore debut of the much-heralded artist was remarkable on several levels, not the least of which was that it happened at all.

Presented by An die Music Live, in a departure from that organization’s home base in Mount Vernon, the event might easily have been canceled for good, as many other arts attractions were when the snow hit. Fellner’s scheduled recital Sunday at the National Gallery in DC was such a casualty, but he was willing to give the Baltimore gig another try on Monday. That was awfully fortunate for the folks who braved the still-iffy road conditions to get there – and fortunate for me that a couple of kindly souls were willing to give me a lift to and from; my car was still held captive by the conditions of the streets in my neighborhood. (Speaking of travel, there was a little glitch in the delivery of the Steinway to the BMA. Fellner had spent hours a few days earlier in DC picking out the instrument he wanted; that one stayed on the truck, alas. The crew unloaded the wrong one and departed.) 

Fellner, the heir apparent to Alfred Brendel’s legacy of intellectually incisive, expressively refined interpretations of the fundamental German repertoire, has been busy presenting a cycle of all 32 Beethoven sonatas in a series held in various cities. This single run-out to Baltimore contained five, starting with No. 12 in A-flat. Except for the statement of the theme in the opening movement, which could have used a subtler, softer, warmer touch, Fellner’s account of this compact, yet action-filled, score was rich in detail. When he reached the whirling finale, he  revealed a striking ability to maintain clarity and color even at a heady pace.

That flair would serve him well in every subsequent burst of rapid-fire finger work, such as the nearly perpetual motion finale of Sonata No. 13 in E-flat (Fellner’s tempo was both furious and fun). And the virtuosity-testing last movement of No. 14 (“Moonlight”), delivered with a particularly startling ease of articulation and compelling sense of drama. I found the pianist’s phrasing in the iconic first movement of No. 14 a little

antiseptic for my tastes, but the quality of execution was still impressive.

The first movement of No. 22 in F inspired abundant touches of character from Fellner; the way he delivered the burst of 21 repeated chords -- finely graded from a terrific fortissimo to a whisper -- just before the soft close of the first movement was but one example. The boldness of Beethoven’s vision and harmonic imagination in that score, as well as the “Waldstein” Sonata (No. 21) that closed the program, could be truly, deeply felt anew at every turn in Fellner’s performance. The closing movements of the “Waldstein” were magically shaped, from the sobering Adagio into the sweeping Rondo; the final prestissimo section, taken at a supersonic speed, was a marvel of musical muscle.

At 37, Fellner has already matured into a most impressive keyboard artist. It’s pretty cool to imagine what he’ll be capable of in the future.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:50 AM | | Comments (6)


Sorry I missed this one. I feel for Fellner not getting the piano he so carefully chose.
Unless they had a climate controlled truck to transport it, the technician would still have had some work to do after exposure to the freezing temperatures. However, from your critique it sounds like it didn't matter which instrument he played.
I hope he eventually records the Beethoven Sonata cycle.

A technician worked for a few hours on the piano before the recital, so that made a big difference. But I suspect Herr Fellner could make a toy piano sound pretty darn good if he had to. TIM

I was there last night and certainly agree that this was an extremely satisfying concert, and particularly in the circumstances it was manna from heaven. His tone was very gorgeous and his touch extremely confident and clarifying, so if he did not get his first choice of piano it's hard to see the loss (to a non-conoisseur like myself). Most pleasureable and enlightening live concert of the Beethoven sonatas I can remember (I had forgotten that the Moonlight sonata is as much virtuoso display as 'moonlight') Once again Henry/An die Musik have made a remarkable contribution to the City's cultural life. Much enjoy your reviews which I read consistently.

Thanks very much for commenting. Kind of cool to have been in that brave little group of piano fans, wasn't it? TIM

I’ll be a while digesting that. I’m not normally a classical music listener – got pointed to this post by my wife – so I can’t really hear what you’re saying from the inside. But I’m fascinated.

I debated whether to venture out for last night's concert, and I'm so glad I did. What a performance! I'd love to catch Fellner again at the Austrian Embassy in March.

Kudos to Henry. An die Musik is a true jewel in the city's music scene.

And thanks to Doreen Bolger and the BMA for going ahead with the event (and having such a fabulously clear parking lot -- the envy of all Balitmore). TIM

Tim---Till Fellner will return to Washington DC to perform the 6th cycle of Beethoven piano-sonatas. This will give another opportunity to listen to his impressive playing, purity of style and rapid-fire finger work maintaining the clarity of music throughout his outstanding performances on Monday, March 22, 2010 at 7:30 at the Austrian Embassy Washington.

Sonata No. 9 in E major, op.14/1
Sonata No. 10 in G major, op.14/2
Sonata No. 8 in C minor, op.13 (“Pathétique”)
Sonata No. 11 in B flat major, op.22
No. 26 in E flat major, op.81a (“Les Adieux”)

Monday March 22 7:30 pm Embassy of Austria
3524 International Court, NW, Washington DC 20008
For tickets reservation, please call 202-625-2361 or visit
In cooperation with the National Gallery of Art and the Embassy Series.

Wow- how can a mover deliver the wrong piano? I think the movers name should be exposed ! This could not be a professional piano mover!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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