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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 28, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 43
Young pianist and an improved Carmen
Arts & Entertainment
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Young pianist and an improved Carmen

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Piano recital by Till Fellner
October 18
Meany Hall


Till Fellner is a young Viennese pianist of impressive technique and musicianship, whose ultra-formal manner at this concert made him seem like an automaton. I could find no fault with his playing, but was bothered by his seeming lack of any personality. Described by the new UW World Series artistic director Michelle Witt as 'a dead ringer for Tobey Maguire,' Fellner is tall, slender, and straight-backed. His technique required little body movement and gave no visual clues about how he felt about the music.

It was all about the music. So, why do I care about the absence of any personhood in his manner away from the piano? His faint acknowledgement of the audience (stiff bows, only a hint of a smile) reminded me of Yevgeny Kissin, who rushed to the piano with hardly a nod to the crowd. Yet, Kissin's visible awkwardness in public and his eagerness to get to the bench, where he could feel comfortable communicating with us, made me like Kissin's personality. And it gave his artistry a context, making the audacity of his playing all the more impressive. Fellner's almost military stiffness, on the other hand, offended me, putting me at a distance I did not want to feel.

His opening 'Piano Sonata in C Major' by Haydn revealed that inside all this formality there lurked a keen artist. He impressed immediately with the clarity of his thought and his fingers. His was not the crystal, Scarlatti-type clarity of Yevgeny Sudbin, who played a similar Haydn sonata here earlier this year. Fellner is a warmer musician, although Sudbin impressed me more by giving shading to innumerable details. Fellner's phrasing was less detailed but had, surprisingly enough, more personality. He caught, for instance, Haydn's wit in the last movement, which Sudbin's recording of the same work utterly missed.

The only fault I found with the music itself was the inclusion after the Haydn of the 2010 work by Kit Armstrong (b. 1992), 'Half of One, Six Dozen of the Other.' I found the piece almost devoid of interest and completely out of synch with the rest of the program.

Robert Schumann's 'Kinderszenen' completed the first half, and Franz Liszt's 'Années de Pelerinage: Deuxieme Année: Italie' filled the second. I could not fault anything in this artist's playing of these. And in the Liszt, Fellner actually showed that he was a little emotionally involved and perhaps even liked the piece! Suddenly I realized that I had been bothered by his manner because I especially appreciate artists who show that they like what they're doing & that they actually love this music and love the opportunity to share it with us. Till Fellner is not that kind of artist - at least not yet.

Footnote to last week's review of Seattle Opera's Carmen
I'm happy to report that I found the alternate cast of Carmen (performing on October 21) in general much more satisfying than that of opening night. The Polish mezzo Malgorzata Walewska was almost as opulent vocally as Anita Rachvelishvili. She too looked the part and acted well, although she played loose with the pitch of many notes. Acting seemed more important to her than musicianship.

The biggest improvement was in the Don José of yet another Mexican tenor, Fernando de la Mora. No great actor, he nonetheless sang well, delivering a quite lovely 'Flower Song.' Also better was soprano Caitlin Lynch, whose voice was perhaps a little small but was well produced from top to bottom.

The most impressive singing of the night, however, came from baritone Michael Todd Simpson. Appearing in both casts, he had grown significantly in his acting out the confident sensuality of Escamillo, and his phrasing, projection of the words, and overall musicality stood out every minute he was singing. His voice might be a little lean for the part, but I thoroughly enjoyed hearing him.

So, as sometimes happens, the alternate cast brought this excellent production to greater success than those singers on opening night.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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