Correction to This Article
The review of pianist Till Fellner included incorrect dates for some upcoming performances. Fellner will play at the Embassy of Austria on March 4, not March 8, and Fran├žois-Frederic Guy will play the complete Beethoven sonatas at La Maison Francaise later in 2009.

Pianist Till Fellner at the National Gallery

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The program notes for Till Fellner's recital on Sunday afternoon compared the feat of performing all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas to climbing Mount Everest. Indeed, there are parallels. Both were first achieved in the 20th century -- the Beethoven sonatas in 1927 by Artur Schnabel, Everest in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary. And once the barrier was broken, everyone wanted to try it. While Everest's base camps are littered with the castoff water bottles and PowerBar wrappers of fit entrepreneurs, the world's concert halls are witnessing an accrual of concert programs documenting dozens of complete Beethoven sonata cycles, usually offered over six or seven concerts: some extending over a season or two, some -- Daniel Barenboim, anyone? -- in a single week.

Fellner is taking the long view; Sunday's concert at the National Gallery started a cycle that will continue for a couple of seasons at different venues around the city (as well as in other cities around the world). Rather than opting for a strictly chronological view, or grouping the pieces so that each concert includes music from each period of Beethoven's oeuvre, Fellner is proceeding impressionistically, by opus number, so that Sunday's concert featured the three sonatas of Op. 31 (Nos. 16, 17 and 18 of the 32) as well as Op. 101 (No. 28). The next concert, on March 8, will feature Op. 2 (Nos. 1, 2 and 3) and Op. 57.

Fellner's Beethoven, in these early-middle-period sonatas, is not easy. He has left behind the light facility of classicism. The first sonata opened with a sense of difficulty that seemed elevated to a kind of intellectual value; against it, the fleet ease Fellner subsequently demonstrated in his fingerwork was merely a bagatelle. Indeed, while each sonata was a distinct sound world, there were certain common ideas; chief among them was a timbral contrast between fluidity and aggressive percussiveness. This was central to Fellner's reading of the D Minor "Tempest," Op. 31, No. 2, in which he contrasted the cloud of the moody opening with the bracing clash of the scurrying chords that follow it; but the contrast also emerged in the first piece. It came to a resolution of sorts in Op. 31, No. 3, which offered a synthesis of fluidity and strength.

But Beethoven's craggy intensity was ultimately defused by Fellner's own underlying wholesomeness, which smoothed out the neuroses of the "Tempest's" concluding Allegretto and brought the languor of a late summer afternoon to the slow movement of Op. 101. The pianist's deep thoughtfulness mined these pieces without overdramatizing them; themes repeated but never brooded, and the conclusion of Op. 101 broke out of the slowness that had preceded it like a crash of bells.

To augment the pleasure of following Fellner's journey through this repertory, Washingtonians will have a chance to compare. The French pianist Fran├žois-Frederic Guy is offering all 32 sonatas within a 10-day period at the Maison Francaise, from Jan. 16 to 25.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company