by Channing Gray
The Newport Music Festival got serious Thursday night with its marathon Beethoven series, rounding up three pianists to tackle the composer’s last three piano sonatas, heaven-bound creations written just a few years before Beethoven’s death, when he was lost in the world of deafness and exploring places no other composer revisited.
To hear one of these sonatas, all so bold and inventive, is a treat. But to hear all three in a single sitting with no intermission can be life-changing.
Too bad the performances were so uneven.
I suspected problems were in store when Czech pianist Terezie Fialova walked on the stage of The Breakers with the score to Opus 109 in hand, rather than have the work down cold and under the fingers.
True, there were some lovely moments in the opening, which contains some of Beethoven’s tenderest writing. But Fialova clearly was not on top of the blistering, finger-twisting second movement.
But she also sounded like she was sight reading. It was a perfunctory performance that seemed so tied to the sheet music that it never was able to touch the heart of this amazing piece with its shimmering set of variations.
But things improved when Boston-based pianist John Ferguson sat down to Opus 110, even though he was hanging on for dear life in the second movement’s tricky, crossed-hands section or the angry second movement.
Ferguson caught on fire for the finale, a sprawling fugue that pauses a couple of times for some of the saddest music Beethoven ever wrote. And Ferguson played these heart-breaking melodies pretty straight, letting the music speak for itself.
But I couldn’t help feeling there was room for a little more emotional spin on the playing, to stretch a bit and really pour his heart out. But most of the time that was held in check.
Ferguson deserves a big hand for his heroic finale, where the fugue blossoms into a soaring anthem.
But it was Ukrainian-born pianist Inna Faliks, who blew the other two pianists out of the water with her enthralling account of Opus 111, the last of the three sonatas and one of Beethoven’s most stunning creations, as he ends a lifetime of sonatas with a few shimmering scale passages and a hushed C Major chord.
This amazing score was clearly in her DNA, as Faliks charged into the brooding introduction when we all thought she was adjusting the piano bench. And from there she had the audience hanging on every note.
Unfortunately, a muffled thud could be heard during the spellbinding set of variations that caps of the last of the 32, and it seemed to be coming from the piano.
But otherwise, this was one of the most moving performance I’ve ever heard of Opus 111, a work whose stormy opening gives way to a great hymn to humanity.
The Newport Festival, held in Bellevue Avenue’s lavish mansions, continues Friday with a sunrise concert, a family concert and an evening of Mozart.
In all, the marathon event, ending July 23, will present 56 concerts in just over two weeks.