We often hear about how Brahms and Mahler lived under the shadow of Beethoven’s symphonies, but I suspect many other composers had the last three sonatas in their heads, keeping them both inspired and humble.
Beethoven Opus 109. 110, 111. Performed by pianist Till Fellner. At Seully Hall, Boston Conservatory, October 12, 2010.
By Susan Miron
The last three of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, composed between 1820–1823, are widely considered to be three of the most sublime, brilliant, and audacious of his works for piano. So remarkable are performances of these three together in one program that people remember performances they’ve witnessed of these three masterworks throughout their listening lives. (I still remember where my husband and I sat some three decades ago in Symphony Hall when Rudolf Serkin played these.)
The staggering effect of hearing all three sonatas in one sitting invariably leaves a listener dumbstruck and in total awe of Beethoven, who composed these visionary works while stone-deaf. Beethoven apparently sensed his days of piano sonata writing were done after writing his radical, two-movement Sonata in C Minor, Opus 111. After this came the fiendishly difficult Diabelli Variations and the Late Bagatelles but no more sonatas.
Austrian pianist Till Fellner was the 1993 winner of the Clara Haskil International Piano Competition; he studied with top teachers in Europe, including Alfred Brendel, whose cellist son Adrian he concertizes with. The past two years he has been circling the globe playing the entire 32 Beethoven sonata cycle. All told he will have given 100 all-Beethoven concerts. Feats like this naturally attract a lot of attention; Seully Hall was filled. This was his second visit to Boston Conservatory for their Piano Masters Series. Thirty-seven years old but looking more like twenty, tall and lanky, he hardly had the look of the elderly masters I had heard play these in the past, almost as much a summation of their lives in music as it was Beethoven’s.
In an interview with the Boston Musical Intelligencer, Mr. Fellner notes how the late sonatas still seem radical to our ears. “They combine all kinds of elements, baroque influences, modernism, highly dramatic and otherworldly lyrical passages, and even humor.”
The first half of the program featured the majestic Opus 109 and 110. Mr. Fellner gave a carefully considered, dryish account of the music; his dynamic range and expressiveness generally seemed rather constrained, his tone on the small side. Everything was correct; I felt like I was listening to a competition winner go through his paces.
Intermission was followed by the dramatic Opus 111, in which Beethoven moved off into, as BCM President Richard Ortner puts it, “places the bus doesn’t go.” Mr. Fellner seemed much looser—as was required when the rhythm gets jazzily dotted—and much more intellectually and musically, even physically, involved.
Virtually every concert I’ve covered the past six months has ended with people jumping enthusiastically to their feet. Is the standing ovation the new applause? Given ones’ mixed feelings about a performance, can one stay seated, a pariah amongst the cheerers? Is a performance that often felt generic worthy of such a reaction? What’s left to do when a performance is really stupendous? Cartwheels?
It’s clear Beethoven never intended to write another movement, but at the time of its publication (1823) many were convinced his copyist simply misplaced it. The second (last) movement, the Arietta, has left many an academic and critic blathering hopelessly with the same saccharine words—moral, mortal, spirit, “an artist striving towards the heavens.” Well, maybe not the heavens, but certainly into the future, to composers who would be writing 50 years later. We often hear about how Brahms and Mahler lived under the shadow of Beethoven’s symphonies, but I suspect many other composers had the last three sonatas in their heads, keeping them both inspired and humble.