Pianist kicks off Viennese festival
Till Fellner’s piano teacher told him that the five Beethoven piano concerti are like a family. The first two are teenagers; the fourth and fifth are parents. And the Concerto No. 3, which the Austrian pianist performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on Friday night, is like a serious young man.
When Mr. Fellner described this tight-knit family in a pre-recorded video that introduced the concert, it prompted a sigh, an “a-ha” moment, from the Heinz Hall audience. And his commentary provided a useful device through which to understand Mr. Fellner’s elegant interpretation: The music may be full of bravado, but Mr. Fellner would take that serious young man as seriously as he takes himself.
Mr. Fellner is a regular collaborator with music director Manfred Honeck, who conducted Friday’s program, the first in the PSO’s two-week spring Viennese festival. This opening weekend emphasizes the Third Concerto, as well as Mozart’s final three symphonies.
It was fun to envision Mr. Fellner’s serious young man at various points in the music. The concerto’s long orchestral introduction and emotional density seems to speak to a flowering confidence. In the opening movement, the pianist firmly pronounced his initial statement of the serene second theme, as if he were expressing a strong moral stance. Then, in a later appearance, it seemed to separate, melting under the weight of experience.
Was that serious young man daydreaming in that first cadenza or falling in love in the pastoral second movement? One could hear a gentle dance in that middle movement, which was a highlight of his performance, although Mr. Honeck could have further highlighted the falling motive of the lower strings.
Mr. Fellner’s encore was Schubert’s “Moments musicaux” No. 3.
The festival’s first weekend is also spotlighting the final three Mozart symphonies, one each night, and Friday’s audience drew Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, along with Haydn’s Overture to “Armida.” These three works — the concerto, the symphony and the opera — were composed within two decades of each other, from 1783-1803, an impressive cross-section of compositional activity that illustrates just how quickly music was advancing at that time.
Mr. Honeck’s spry interpretation of the Mozart featured his usual interpretive twists, such as shifting dynamics or an effusive take on Mozart’s already surprising ending. He also thrives in dance movements, and the third movement evoked a sense of dance-like flight.
Yet those same interpretive ideas that distinguished the performance also could get in the way. The carnivallike trio, for example, lost much of its rounded luster when Mr. Honeck shifted the volume down, and the speed of the finale took away some of its precision. Similarly, an energetic performance of Haydn’s overture lost a sense of flow by virtue of the major contrasts in tempo.
This concert also included a moving performance of Mozart’s “Ave verum corpus,” dedicated to the memory of Henry Hillman, Dan Rooney and Jim Wilkinson, who died this month.
David Coucheron of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra served as the guest concertmaster.