Till Fellner: In Concert – Beethoven/Liszt (ECM New Series 2511)

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Till Fellner
In Concert: Beethoven/Liszt

Till Fellner piano
Années de pèlerinage
Concert recording, June 2002
Wien, Musikverein, Großer Saal
Tonmeister: Gottfried Zawichowski
Engineer: Andreas Karlberger
An ORF Recording (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio Österreich 1)
Sonata No. 32
Concert recording, October 2010
Middlebury College Performing Arts Series
Mahaney Center for the Arts, Robison Hall
Tonmeister: Mark Christensen
Mastering: Markus Heiland
An ECM Production
Release date: November 2, 2018

But where of ye, O tempests! is the goal?
Are ye like those within the human breast?
Or do ye find, at length, like eagles, some high nest?
–Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

After a mosaic of recordings spanning the gamut from J. S. Bach to Thomas Larcher, Till Fellner returns to ECM with a pastiche of live recordings from 2002 and 2010. The first presents the Austrian pianist in his home capital for year one of Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. Inspired by the composer’s trip to Switzerland from 1835 to 1836 but unpublished until 1855, this aural scrapbook is alive with alpine imagery and motifs, encompassing firsthand memories, friendships, and even political views. It’s on the latter note that the collection begins with La Chapelle de Guillaume Tell. This stately introduction to an otherwise flowing work sets a precedent of architectural soundness that infuses all to follow. Contrast this with the watery beauties of Au lac de Wallenstadt and Au bord d’une source, and you already have a sense of the variety to which Liszt had eloquent access, rendered by Fellner with dynamic temperament.

While many sections, such as the sunlit Pastorale and Eglogue (the latter riffing on a shepherd’s song), are built around fleeting impressions, each nevertheless feels complete. This may be due to the fact nearly all of the music is revised from earlier material, an exception being the tempestuous Orage. No matter the duration, emotional integrity is the primary ingredient, so that the descriptions of Vallée d’Obermann’s thirteen precious minutes feel just as thick as Le mal du pays. Both seem to find the composer yearning for home when away from it, if not also for distant travels when in it, lending themselves to a score that only serves to nourish Fellner’s radiance. All the above shades of meaning cohere in Les cloches de Genève, by which the pianist elicits rich yet subtle sonorities.

If Liszt is a photographer, then Ludwig van Beethoven is a filmmaker whose magnum opus is surely the Sonata No. 32 in c minor. His Opus 111 shares its key signature with the Fifth Symphony and other monumental works, and provides a fitting end to his sonata cycle. As suggested in William Kinderman’s deeply considered liner essay, “The pair of movements of this sonata interact as a contrasting duality suggesting strife and fulfillment, evoking qualities which have stimulated much discussion, reminding commentators of the ‘here’ and the ‘beyond,’ or ‘samsara’ and ‘nirvana.’” Such spiritual language is no mere hyperbole, but an activation point of Beethoven’s grander concerns over the effects of art on the soul. As The Art of Fugue was to Bach, so is the Sonata No. 32 to Beethoven with regard to variation.

To be sure, Fellner touches upon those grander narratives, but more importantly keeps his ears attuned to the details. In the opening movement, for example, his arpeggios feel like quills on paper. Balancing stream-of-consciousness impulses with deeply articulated control, he links an unbreakable chain of progression. The second and final movement begins almost timidly, as if sifting through old notes for fear of what one might find, only to be surprised by a joy one never knew was waiting for rediscovery. Urgency compels the left hand while trills in the right signal a transformation of flesh into glory. “The transformational power of this closing music,” says Kinderman, “acts like a utopian symbol, which seeks to neutralize if not dispel the tragic reality embodied in the weighty opening movement of the work.” And perhaps weight is the most appropriate physical property by which to analyze what’s happening here, for regardless of size and scope, the relationship of every note to gravity is meticulously examined, its potential for flight believed in like a prayer.

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 – Fellner/Nagano (ECM New Series 2114)


Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5

Till Fellner piano
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
Kent Nagano conductor
Concert recordings, May and November 2008 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Montréal
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In his liner essay, Paul Griffiths rightly credits Ludwig van Beethoven with having given the orchestra “a voice,” and in the composer’s final concertos offered here we have even greater reason to bask in his voluminous discourse, made all the more so for the temperamental piano at its center. These two musical forces, strings and keys, “speak to us by speaking to each other.” Such plurivocity, Griffiths further contends, is only heightened by the performances on this disc. Austrian pianist Till Fellner, who previously graced us with his Bach interpretations, now enacts an equally contested dramaturgy in these mighty, yet ever delicate masterworks. At the podium is Kent Nagano, a personal operatic favorite who treats the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal like a giant chorus far too expansive to be constricted by human throats.

Fellner (photo by Ben Ealovega)

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major op. 58 (1805/06)
While most concertos of this magnitude would begin with an orchestral prelude of sorts into which the soloist may be dropped like so much creative ink, here the latter opens the floor in the tonic before spreading its fingers into the dominant key. The composer holds our attention throughout its entire 19-minute expanse, a concerto in and of itself; no small feat considering that it twists the barest of thematic cores into a veritable unicorn’s horn of charging force, brought home in the glorious final chords. The second movement entrances us with its attendant imagery of Orpheus taming the Furies before Hades. Having only melody to hold on to in its shadows, we put our trust in this music completely. Our abstruse confusion is over before we know it, and as we are swept up in the ensuing Rondo we find that we’ve been dreaming all along.

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major op. 73 (1809/10)
Despite having earned the nickname of “Emperor,” this concerto is, Griffiths reminds us, nothing if monarchical. Opening in tutti and with a graceful cadenza, the Allegro charts a formidable exposition through landscapes unchanging and deciduous alike. Dancing configurations in the first half underscore not only a depth of virtuosity, but also of melodic effect, while denser punctuations in the second thread our minds with braids of protracted thematic closure. A pensive Adagio heralds ever so subtly the newly emerging Romanticism of the age. Fellner’s careful pedaling ensures that we get the most out of every phrase as the piano descends toward the lone bassoon that bleeds into the concluding Rondo. One can almost feel the hems of dresses and tailored lapels tracing their grand circles in the air as the instrumentalists engage in a lavish dance. Beethoven sweeps his brush through the piano’s densest colors and uses these to paint a rousing portrait of epic intimacies.

Both of these concertos are dedicated to Archduke Rudolph of Austria (1788-1831), a student of Beethoven’s who would also become a great patron. That such powerful creations might sometimes not exist without likeminded support is a sad yet potent reminder of the invisible tug-of-war between music and economics. Thankfully, ECM’s finely chosen interpretations and engineering betray none of these politics and present the music in all its richness without any strings attached. We see this in Nagano’s palpable free spirit, in the orchestra’s every nuance, and in Fellner’s attentiveness to each cumulative set of notes. He plays the middle movements faster than most, giving them new life for a new century, plowing ahead with the immensity of fortitude and passion that spawned them. Bravos all around.

Bach: Inventionen und Sinfonien/Französische Suite V – Fellner (ECM New Series 2043)


Johann Sebastian Bach
Inventionen und Sinfonien/Französische Suite V

Till Fellner piano
Recorded July 2007, Mozartsaal, Wiener Konzerthaus
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

What is a “Bach interpreter”? Is it someone who draws from creative reserves to put as unique a spin as possible on much-performed repertoire? Must s/he be selfless and allow the music to “speak for itself”? After a four-year wait, Austrian pianist Till Fellner follows up his humble ECM debut recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier with the often overshadowed Two and Three Part Inventions, through which he answers these questions with one of his own: However Bach is painted, what is the image being maintained?

From note one, this is a clearer, more present album than Fellner’s somewhat murkier (and no less affecting) WTC. He holds up every piece to his jeweler’s eye, that we might better see its overall prismatic nature. His rhythms are protean and proper, giving the faster movements just enough pep to gain savory traction while lacing the slower ones with a luxuriant sweetness. As with his last studio effort, Fellner shows a profound ability to draw out the denser implications of the latter (particularly Inventions No. 6 and No. 7; Sinfonias No. 2, No. 6, and No. 7). The more rapid flights are so clearly separated in his fingers that one never gets lost in their overload of grace. From the gravid yet fluid treads of Inventions No. 4 and No. 8 to the trill-infused menagerie of No. 10 and the invigorating No. 13, each instructive development unfolds a new page in this evolving book. Two Sinfonias—No. 11 and No. 15—grow especially more complex with each new listen. Their aquatic transparency and sweeping runs bow like a servant at court to a faceless monarch of sound. Fellner caps the program with a spacious rendition of Bach’s French Suite No. 5. Showing again his supreme pacing in the opening Allemande, he continues through a must-stop-whatever-you’re-doingly gorgeous Sarabande on his way to a winged Gigue.

Intended as the Inventions were as mere didactic exercises, their lines are unmitigated and succinct. Yet for all their brevity, a macrocosm of chords swings between its molecular monkey bars. Fellner plays utterly pianistically, and in doing so makes no qualms about the newness his style can bring. The variable volume of the instrument is taken full advantage of by Fellner, who allows choice notes to ring out and descend. In doing so, he manages to pull off an astounding feat: reinvigorating Bach with utter complacency. Says Fellner of these pieces: “Literally every note counts.” But when he plays, it all comes down to one.

Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Buch I – Fellner (ECM New Series 1853/54)

Johann Sebastian Bach
Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Buch I

Till Fellner piano
Recorded September 2002, Jugendstiltheater, Vienna
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

One need only hear Till Fellner’s opening bars of the C major Prelude to know we’ve been taken in by a most heartfelt performance of The Well-Tempered Clavier. The Viennese pianist’s unparalleled grace and fluidity, aided by a rather “submerged” recording, serve to enlarge the visual field of the music at hand. And by the time we get to the C minor Prelude, we know there is no escape from this miraculous cage. Fellner always manages to keep himself at a distance, as if the music were coming from a dream he never wishes to abandon.

These pieces are like bits of life in concentrated form, each prelude a genetic signature and every fugue the trait it enables in the growing organism. Fellner bows to every movement and allows the dynamics to unfold from within. The faster sections in particular show a marked infusion of drama, each building through a slow fade-in to a more pronounced finish. Prime examples of this include the C-sharp major, G major, and B major Preludes, and the E minor Fugue. Fellner also makes the most of striking juxtapositions. The sprightly D major Prelude, for example, is all the more enlivening for being paired with the C-sharp minor Fugue’s beautiful lag. Yet never has a Bach interpreter so evocatively captured my interest in the slower movements, and no more so than in Prelude and Fugue in B minor. The A major Fugue and F minor Prelude go straight to the gut, and the F-sharp major Prelude practically weeps from the keyboard. Some of the album’s most emotional moments are to be found in the celestial G minor Prelude, with an opening trill that practically sings. And so, it is rather fitting that Book I should end on the somber B minor Fugue, seeming to regret its impending end while also fully resigning itself to the sentiment it has left behind.

Fellner has achieved something truly magical in this recording. Not only has be managed to “reopen” The Well-Tempered Clavier with his warmth, but he has done so by stretching it into a vaster tapestry, thereby allowing us to visualize every shadowy figure that passes through it. We distinguish mere snatches of form—an eye, a pair of parted lips, perhaps an extending hand—so that every nuance brings us closer to understanding the corporeal totality of the music. Fellner’s superb handling turns even the most staid movements into fresh listening experiences, while his airy separation and delicately applied arpeggios turn every polyphonic moment into its own soundscape. The album’s softness is, I think, as much a part of Fellner’s aesthetic as it is of ECM’s. Yet for all that Fellner brings to this project, the music comes through with renewed vigor, and that is the sign of a singular musician indeed.