Pianist Till Fellner at the Kennedy Center: Well-received but somewhat prosaic

October 2, 2011

Austrian pianist Till Fellner gave a well-received but somewhat prosaic performance Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. This self-effacing artist with a solid international career and fairly large discography is no stranger to area audiences, having recently completed a cycle of Beethoven sonatas here. Nearing 40, he is at the peak of his considerable powers, which were most successfully displayed in the Liszt “Dante” sonata that ended the concert.

Elsewhere, while everything was delivered with intelligence and unruffled keyboard mastery, the musicmaking was problematic. In the opening Haydn sonata, the well-known Hob. XVI:50 in C, the internal pulse was not rock-solid. Deliberate rubatos aside, Fellner revealed a slight wishy-washiness as far as rhythm; there wasn’t always the same amount of air between equal notes, some of which struggled to breathe. And he fell too often into the “softer equals slower” trap, an aesthetic from a later period that makes Haydn sound portentous and cloying.

While the adagio was lavished with the operatic freedom it required, the finale didn’t hang together. Fellner felt all the puckish mood-changes, but so much so that there was no line, no continuity. Haydn wrote only two of the many ritardandos that the artist inserted, and when it came, the end seemed arbitrary.

Next was a new work written for Fellner by music-and-math wunderkind Kit Armstrong, “Half of One, Six Dozen of the Other.” This piece was a good companion to the all-Liszt second half, with its fixation on tritone harmonies. Otherwise, it was mostly drab and, surprisingly, unpianistic. While the architecture was elegant and assured, none of the writing called for the sort of interpretive or coloristic skill that would separate one pianist from another. And I’m not sure Fellner was all that enamored with it, anyway; he needed the score, long stretches went by without noticeable dynamic contrast, and his affect was more dutiful than engaged.

In Schumann’s evergreen “Kinderszenen,” the playing was admirable on its own terms, but given Fellner’s willingness to bend a phrase in the Haydn, I was hoping for more imagination and fantasy here. The range of expression was narrower than we’ve heard from others, and some of Schumann’s most colorful textures became etiolated under Fellner’s clean fingers. The bracing clarity of the fast, aggressive numbers did not make up for the dryness of “Träumerei” or the last two pieces.

In the second book of Liszt’s “Années de Pèlerinage,” the pianist’s style lined up almost perfectly with the composer’s vision. Fellner is his own man, but one could still hear the influence of his former mentor, Alfred Brendel, in the rigorous balance of objectivity and creativity. The weaknesses of the Haydn and Schumann became strengths in this traversal. Although he could not redeem the banality of the “Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa,” Fellner had the full measure of the music, striding over the keyboard like a conquering hero. The last two Petrarchan sonnets were especially fine, building up masterfully to the climactic “Dante” Sonata, in which this likable artist was at his very best.

Battey is a freelancer writer.

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