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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Inventionen BWV 772-786 (1723) [22:08]
Sinfonien BWV 787-801 (1723) [26:39]
Französische Suite V in G-Dur BWV 816 [19:25]
Till Fellner (piano)
rec. July 2007, Mozartsaal, Wiener Konzerthaus
ECM NEW SERIES 2043 4766355
Experience Classicsonline

This the kind of thing which doesn’t come around very often. The last time I felt this way about a recording of J.S. Bach on the piano was when I first encountered Sviatoslav Richter’s Well-Tempered Klavier, initially on a big chunky box of Melodiya LPs bought at bargain price at Farringdon Records on Cheapside. Later it was on as a rather less attractively designed CD box from RCA/BMG, GD 60949 – since re-released. The acoustic in which the young Austrian pianist Till Fellner goes to work on the fascinating programme on this disc is not dissimilar to the Schloss Klessheim space in which Richter worked in the early 1970s. This is very well handled by the ECM tonmeister, giving enough of the acoustic to provide an attractive sense of space and transparency, while preserving the essentially warm and lyrical clarity of Fellner’s playing.

Almost all of us mere mortals of the piano have ‘had a go’ at several of the pieces on this disc. I must admit to having to rise above all those dire student memories of endlessly repeating certain Inventionen und Sinfonien, just to see if I could get from the beginning to the end without making any mistakes. The educational aspect of this music is covered in the booklet notes, but as is also pointed out, music which transcends its pedagogical intent is not uncommon, with examples such as Chopin’s Etudes through to Bartók’s Mikrokosmos and beyond. Fellner, a pianist who has studied with Alfred Brendel, and who won the Clara Haskil International Competition in 1993, made his ECM debut with Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier. He felt his performance of Book II had yet to ripen enough for a recording though, and so we are blessed with what must be one of the most remarkable ‘stop-gap’ discs of this or any year.

Fellner can not only get through each of these pieces without making mistakes, but immediately transports you out of the world of academic keyboard study and into that of sheer genuine music which with J.S. Bach, even in works with only two or three parts, is the best of all possible worlds. One of my ways of becoming acquainted with a new recording is to load it onto a portable MP3 player alongside a week’s worth of podcasts from BBC Radio 4. The music always seems to pop up somewhat unexpectedly, there being no rhyme or reason to the position of the files on these machines. So it has been that, riding my bike to or from work, these cloistered discussions on the Magna Carta of the Hubble space telescope can without warning open out into this most remarkable of musical conversations. Colours become brighter, the mental fumes blow away on an amiable sea breeze, and Dutch drivers who don’t use their indicators when turning cease to be an irritant.

Till Fellner is less wilful but no less poetic than Richter. He can be romantic at times, and this is brought out most in the slow movements of the French Suite. His tempi are on the whole fairly conservative however, by which I mean that there is rarely anything exotic or unexpected. He keeps a very accurate pulse, but has a beautifully lyrical approach which allows the shapes to flow in all the right directions. By simply following the rule of playing more legato with notes which are close together and separating the wider leaps he is already well on the way to satisfying the local piano teacher, but there is far more going on. The scores of the Inventionen and Sinfonien are conspicuously barren of markings, whether for dynamics, phrasing or legato. The pianist has to decide all of these for themselves. If you listen carefully you will hear Fellner not only shaping individual phrases into elegant peaks and troughs, but also creating marvellous forms from each musical gem – sometimes crystalline and sparkling, more often an undulating landscape which takes you on a unique journey, and always brings you safely home.

The hallmark of Fellner’s playing in Bach is his lyrical touch, which brings a vocal character to music which can more easily be made to sound aristocratic and impersonal. His melodic lines have an easy elasticity, giving and taking in tempo within the exacting and controlled proportions required to make the music sound entirely natural and organic. The lighter, more dance-like pieces such as the Invention X in G major also have a wit and a sense of joy both present and in reserve which prevents any possibility of cloy, not that there is any chance of that, but it’s not all beautiful lines – there’s a great sense of rhythm and fun here as well.

All of the above remarks were typed while the two-part Inventionen were being re-run, but all comments apply to the three-part Sinfonien as well. The warmth and clarity which characterises the two-part pieces is here in the Sinfonien, though with that extra layer of a third voice there is a sense of growth, of greater expressive potential. Fellner balances the voices superbly, and though the ‘third’ or least pronounced line at any one moment can be quite considerably more recessed than the others the smaller voice can always be heard, and is always an influence on the others. Tempi can be stretched a little more here, and Fellner indulges in a nobly spacious E flat major which gives the sustaining qualities of the piano some exercise. This is a sustain quality in the following magical E major but in a different way: in that sense that you feel the notes swelling within themselves – a sheer illusion of course, but one Richter has been known to pull off, and which I hadn’t expected to hear elsewhere. The beautiful F minor masterpiece is taken at a measured but unmannered pace, keeping the flow to a natural level at which you could imagine sung lines being taken so that breaths could be taken without strain. Each one of these pieces is a sheer joy in Till Fellner’s hands, and collectively their status seems to have been raised notches higher after hearing this recording. If you thought you could leave Bach be after the Well-Tempered Klavier then I’m afraid you need to hear this – I won’t say three voices are better than four, but they are certainly every bit as good.

The sense of growth and shape within each piece and through the harmonic development through the cycles of the Inventionen and Sinfonien is brought to a logical conclusion by the final work in this programme, the French Suite V. Bach’s counterpoint flowers into a fruitful collaboration with the dance forms in each movement of this work, and, our senses already sensitised by the previous works, this piece has every bit the sense of culmination brought in a well considered performance of the Goldberg Variations. Fellner’s expressive sense of melodic line is given a freer rein in this work, and the more romantic senses are allowed a touch more space in movements such as the Sarabande. None of this means Fellner is turning his Bach into Brahms, but it does mean that his playing is less brittle than Ivo Pogorelich as a more or less random instance, and has a good deal more warmth and welcoming character than someone like Glenn Gould. Some fine, playful touches of extra ornamentation grace a witty Gavotte, but as ever, Fellner remains restrained and tasteful. I did feel there was a little tightness in some of his trills earlier on in the disc, but in the French Suite they have a very relaxed and spontaneous feel.

ECM’s presentation for this disc is good, with some nice facsimile reproductions and an interesting essay by Jürg Stenzl. Apart from a few photos there is however no information on Till Fellner whatsoever. Aside from Richter, one of my favourite J.S. Bach performers on piano recordings has been Andràs Schiff on early 1980s Decca, and I do feel a connection between both players’ warmth of tone and sense of legato touch. There are other notable performers like Angela Hewitt on Hyperion, who have also received critical acclaim for lucid and distinctive playing which remains true to the spirit of Bach in this repertoire on a modern concert grand. All praise to those magnificent performers. This disc now rides on top of my choices for disc of the decade however, and my order for Fellner’s WTC I has already been placed.

Dominy Clements


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