Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5

Till Fellner, Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano

Austrian pianist Till Fellner whose two Bach albums on ECM have won him unanimous international acclaim teams up with conductor Kent Nagano and his Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal for a sensitive and meticulous interpretation of Beethoven’s much-loved piano concertos Nos. 4 and 5. In a review to be published in the March issue of ‘Fanfare’ Jerry Dubins speaks of a “stunning achievement” and points out that “the recording has a fullness, depth, and solidity to it that are equal to the very best modern technology has to offer.” Fellner and Nagano, musical collaborators for more than a decade, share a delicate and sensitive approach to Beethoven’s middle period that, by eschewing all demonstrativeness, focusses on natural tempi, transparent sound and maximum clarity of articulation. While Fellner continues his much-lauded cycle of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas on major concert platforms in the US, Europe and Japan, Nagano and his Montreal orchestra have received much attention with their Beethoven project “Ideals of the French Revolution”. Fellner can also be heard in Thomas Larcher’s “Böse Zellen”, to be released in late March.

Featured Artists Recorded

May & November 2008, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Montréal

Original Release Date


  • Piano Concerto No. 4 G major, op. 58
    (Ludwig van Beethoven)
  • 1Allegro moderato18:46
  • 2Andante con moto04:53
  • 3Rondo. Vivace10:23
  • Piano Concerto No. 5 E-flat major, op. 73
    (Ludwig van Beethoven)
  • 4Allegro20:37
  • 5Adagio un poco moto07:23
  • 6Rondo. Allegro, ma non troppo10:25
An interview with Till Fellner

Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth Concertos are appearing at the same time as your cycle of the thirty-two sonatas in some of the world's major concert halls. Is this a lucky accident or a logical development in your career?
I view the two cycles – the sonatas and the concertos – as long-term parallel projects, it’s been a wonderful experience to study and to perform all these pieces. Kent Nagano and I have played music together for over ten years. Some time ago we talked about a fairly large joint project, and when Kent took over as principal conductor in Montréal in 2006 we quickly agreed to focus on the Beethoven concertos.

Which of Nagano's artistic qualities do you most appreciate?
He's very precise yet very open-minded when it comes to interpretation. He also takes a great deal of time; we get together before rehearsals and give the details a thorough discussion. Kent really rehearses and works on the concertos rather than saving his time for the symphonies, as some conductors like to do.

How did your work with the Beethoven sonatas influence your understanding of the concertos, and vice versa?
There may be occasional points of contact between the two groups as regards details, but of course playing with an orchestra is a fundamentally different matter. You have a counterpart to play with and against it. Still, I'm especially interested in what's specific or unique to a piece rather than its common generic features. After all, every work tells you something new. My teacher, Alfred Brendel, once compared the five Beethoven concertos to a family: you might regard the first two as teenagers and the third as an earnest young man. That makes the Fourth the mother and the Fifth the father.

Could you pinpoint the contrast between the final two concertos more precisely?
The G-major requires freedom and flexibility, especially in the opening movement. The tempo needs many slight modifications and the transitions are absolutely crucial, there lies the challenge in the interplay with the orchestra. In comparison, the Fifth is a heroic piece through and through, but never martial! It's a hymn of freedom laid out as a large fresco.

What aspects of these two pieces do you feel have been neglected in performance? To put it another way, why do you think it’s appropriate to make a new recording of these popular repertoire pieces?
That's a question I basically never ask myself; I search for my own path to the pieces I play. But if there's a point where my ideas depart from tradition, then it's surely the tempo of the slow movements, which I feel have often been taken far too slow. The old editions put the 'Adagio un poco moto' of the Fifth in 4/4 instead of alle breve, which turns the movement into a completely different piece. Even Carl Czerny pointed out that the movement shouldn't drag. And taking the Andante of the Fourth con moto - 'with movement' - is another important item of information. In contrast, you have to be careful not to take Rondo of the Fifth too fast.

Looking at the sonatas, your colleague András Schiff once said that it took a while before he felt equal to the 'grandeur' of Beethoven's style. Can you sympathize with that?
It takes a long time to grasp any genuine masterpiece and you won’t find an ever-valid solution. Certain things I want to play right now, and then over and over again. That's why, for instance, I'm performing Schubert's Winterreise with Mark Padmore ...

You already released recordings of the Second and Third Concertos with Neville Marriner back in the early Nineties.
That was a leap into cold water! When I won the Clara Haskil Competition in 1993 I had an opportunity to tour Mexico with the Acaemy of St. Martin in the Fields playing all five concertos. My first live performance of the fifth concerto took place before some 11,000 people. That was pretty crazy! Then I repeatedly played all five concertos on two consecutive nights with the Vienna Chamber Philharmonic in 2003. Finally, when Kent offered me a large-scale joint project, I spontaneously chose the Beethoven concertos because I've had the most experience with them.

In April ECM will release your recording of Thomas Larcher's piano concerto Böse Zellen ['Malignant Cells'], where the piano is almost always prepared. Quite a contrast with Beethoven, wouldn't you say?
It certainly is! I'd already given the world première of Larcher’s Mumien ['Mummies'] for cello and piano with Heinrich Schiff back in 2002 [see ECM 1967]. And in autumn 2007 I took the solo part in the first performance of Böse Zellen for full orchestra in Innsbruck. The recording in summer 2008 with the Munich Chamber Orchestra was a natural continuation. Thomas Larcher is a composer I deeply admire and from whose pieces I gain a lot. They are highly original, and he's also an excellent pianist.
Interview: Anselm Cybinski