Till Fellner (piano)
Wigmore Hall, London, 30 May 2016
written by Ben Hogwood
Audio (open in a new window)
Available until 27 June
What’s the music?
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in E flat major Op.27/1 Quasi una fantasia (1800-1801) (16 minutes)
Schumann – Fantasy in C major, Op.17 (1836-1839) (32 minutes)
In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below. Till Fellner has not yet recorded either of the works, so recommended alternative versions have been used:
About the music
The subtitle for Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no.13 gives him permission to stray from the norm. By this time he had twelve piano sonatas already published, and so it would seem to be a reasonable time for experimentation. This is the first of two works bearing the subtitle Quasi una fantasia, the second of which is one of Beethoven’s most famous compositions, the Moonlight sonata. That should not overshadow this piece though, which is – as with all of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas – a very fine work.
Schumann’s Fantasy in C was meant to be dedicated to Beethoven as part of a memorial to the composer in Bonn, but as it turns out is an outpouring of love for his wife to be Clara. It is a kind of reverse of Beethoven’s ‘sonata like a fantasy’, being a ‘fantasy with the form of a sonata’. Despite the outpouring for Clara it is officially dedicated to Liszt, who was tasked with organising the memorial.
Arcana was not present in the Wigmore Hall for this concert. However even on the radio it is clear that Till Fellner has great empathy with this music. While he is not massively demonstrative he plays with great clarity and a really impressive sense of melodic line, so that even in the most crowded of textures that Beethoven and Schumann employ, the tunes can still clearly be heard.
The link between the two pieces is a fascinating one and makes for a thoroughly rewarding program, whether in Beethoven trying to escape his formal constraints, or Schumann applying them to a loose-limbed fantasy.
What should I listen out for?
1:46 The first movement begins softly, with an Andante tempo marking (at a walking pace). Gradually the intensity grows, but the sudden jump to Allegro in C major at 4:26 still comes as a big surprise. The music returns to the mood of the beginning.
6:37 The second movement is in C minor, a kind of modified Scherzo that actually sounds quite stern.
8:42 A slow third movement in A flat major, which brings back a few memories of Beethoven’s earlier Pathetique sonata, which had a slow movement in the same key. This one is expressive and thoughtful but with more forward movement than in that piece.
11:52 – a transition from the slow movement takes place without a break, moving into a positive and much quicker finale. Beethoven writes this in a ‘rondo’ form – which means we hear the main theme (‘A’) a lot – but we also hear the theme from the slow movement again (‘C’). The form is A-B-A-C-A-B.
19:55 – few pieces for piano start with quite the immediate flow of the Schumann, which has a torrent of notes to begin with, a sea of romantic thought. Gradually the ardour cools a little, but around 25:40 it returns, and the continuous, unbroken stream of Schumann’s inspiration is clear. The movement ends softly, seemingly lost in thought.
33:03 – a triumphant march for the second movement, one of Schumann’s most positive musical thoughts – and set in the key of E flat major, home of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and, later on, Schumann’s own Rhenish symphony – which this movement seems to anticipate. It is a proud, noble piece of music.
41:19 – the third and last movement starts with cool arpeggios, back in the key of C major, before an ardent tune heard from 41:46 in the right hand, one of the staples of the movement. There follows a long and slow build towards 46:15, where Schumann makes a grand statement, before retreating to more reflective music again. The same happens at 49:57, by which time Schumann has worked his way back to C major. Here the music stays in peace and harmony, one of the composer’s most settled states of mind.
53:24 More Schumann, this time a brief excerpt (1:40) from Carnaval, his short series of postcard portraits of masked revellers for the piano. This one is the fifth of 21, Eusebius – reflecting the composer’s ‘calm, deliberate side’ according to Wikipedia.
The obvious next port of call from the Beethoven is his next piano sonata, also with the title Quasi una fantasia – which is of course the Moonlight. Here it is on Spotify played by Emil Gilels, the last three tracks of a superbly played trio of Beethoven sonatas:
From Schumann’s Fantasy there are two hugely enjoyable next steps – the first a set of eight Fantasiestücke published as Op.12, and another set of eight pieces called Kreisleriana, which end on a haunting note. They can both be heard as part of an Alfred Brendel Schumann collection below: