Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas span his whole composing career, and represent a fascinating creative diary.
They begin with their feet firmly planted in the eighteenth century, and end in a place which even now feels like the future. Each sonata is sui generis, with no overlap or repetition of any kind; each is a fresh-created world. And the demands they make on pianists are imaginative rather than technical: how to convey their condensed and passionate dramas is the study of a lifetime. Complete cycles draw the crowd through the heroism they require, hence the packed hall for Till Fellner’s concerts. This 38-year-old may be Austria’s leading pianist, but he still comes across like the teenage protege of Alfred Brendel he once was.
Four of the five sonatas he had chosen this time were early ones, and he began with the brightly-coloured pair from Opus 14. Their particular quality resides in their small-scale, intimate charm, but Fellner attacked them with such a large and heavily-pedalled sound that the poetry got lost. Only when he reached the quirky variations of the G major did he open up his palette, and experiment with rhythms, but once in that mode he began to have fun and so, consequently, did we; the hurrying, start-stop-start scherzo was packed with comic incident. I hated the clumping way he played the infinitely tender second movement of the Pathetique, which followed, but its whirlwind finale was full of playful fury.
Maybe Fellner just needed to settle, because the second half of his concert gained steadily in power and authority. The architecture of the volcanic Opus 22 was realised with brilliant clarity, and he wove a wonderful spell as its slow movement receded into ever-darker regions; the ornate and muscular Rondo grew ever more exciting. Concluding with ‘Les Adieux’ - one of Beethoven’s rare pieces of programme music - he went out on a high: it was impossible to resist the yearning sadness of the slow movement, and the bounding exuberance of the finale.
This recital may have ended in triumph, but it was put into perspective by the Beethoven played in this same hall the previous night by the remarkable young Chinese pianist Hong Xu. Because Hong had found a completely different kind of poetry. That’s the great thing about Beethoven: with him, there’s never a last word, or a definitive way.