Context is everything. It’s context – or the lack thereof – that makes “new music” so challenging to some denizens of the classical music sector. And it’s context that so often increases the appeal of cycles of things – the complete symphonies of Mahler or Bruckner, for example, or the complete songs of Wolf – and never mind that any of those options would make for a very long sit. But it’s quite worthwhile to experience things in context, and one of the ways of forcing the issue is to do cycles or parts thereof. The first concert (of six) in Duke Performance’s Piano Recital Series put the last three Beethoven keyboard sonatas in context during an early (7:00 p.m.) Sunday evening recital, given in Reynolds Industries Theatre on one of the University’s relatively new Steinways. The artist was Till Fellner, who, at the ripe old age of 38, is tall, thin, and talented – and very much in command of the piano and these incredible, often mystical, always cerebral works from late in the great master’s composing career.

Yes, context is everything. Even those of us who’ve been hearing these late sonatas – Nos. 30-32, in E, A-flat, and C minor, respectively, Opp. 109-111 – most of our lives surely find them difficult to comprehend (and never mind the evident challenge of playing them with understanding). Superficially, they appear fairly straightforward, and they’re not very long – the three consume just a little over an hour. The first two are in three movements each, and in both instances the first two are relatively short and musically concise. The third movement of each is however a different matter – both finales are longer than the first two movements, combined, and both are slow and soul-searching. The last sonata is unlike the previous two in that it is in just two movements, the second of which is one of those other-worldly things akin to the slow movement of the “Choral Symphony” or – better still – that section after the Sanctus, at the start of the Benedictus, in the Missa Solemnis, where the mini-violin-concerto causes time to – literally – stand still.

So just imagine how folks of Beethoven’s time might have responded to these works! It’s hard to grasp how “modern” they must have sounded – for they are still quite far out pieces, pieces that are, in the view of some radio station programmers, too far out for air-play, even today!

Till Fellner (whose website loads more slowly than just about any we’ve encountered – click here and go for coffee while you wait) launched his current US tour with this Duke program. He’s been campaigning the 32 Beethoven sonatas for three years or so, which means that he must have been around 35 when he started. Much of the playing was elegant – and lyrical. He has these works under his fingers and in his psyche and his soul, and he plays them exceptionally well, with technique to burn, with some of the cleanest articulation heard here in many moons, and with – to these ears – just the right balance between the left and right hands. It will be interesting to gauge how Fellner’s approach to these pieces changes, over time. Some places seemed about as fast as one might ever hear them – or expect to hear them. Some places seemed almost too slow. But Fellner’s evident conception of the works and his pianistic prowess enabled him to pull off that great trick of the greatest artist – he made us – or at least, some of us – think that his way was the best way to play them, and for us to hear them, in that context. For context is everything.

And to grasp the context, in order to facilitate understanding, just consider the other works Beethoven saw published about the same time. One can look them up in the Grove series, but for this particular purpose a chronological listing such as published in Oscar Thompson’s International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians is more helpful. One finds there Scottish songs, Calm Sea…,  The Ruins of Athens, King Stephen, lots of short pieces for piano, that aforementioned Missa Solemnis, the last four quartets (including the Große Fuge), and the first Leonore Overture (an earlier work, published late). The informative program notes, by Susan Halpern, discuss the then-prevalent contemporaneous feeling that the composer was washed up when he wrote the last sonatas before concluding that it wasn’t so. It’s food for thought. Consider the context.

Fellner was received with increasing enthusiasm. At the end, the crowd seemed reluctant to let him go. May he come again, before too long.

This outstanding series, truly one of the gems of the Triangle’s music scene, continues with András Schiff  (October 22), Arnaldo Cohen and Mihaela Ursuleasa (November 14), Jeremy Denk (February. 12), Marc-André Hamelin (March 4), and Marino Formenti (March 27). For details, see our calendar.