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“Every Beethoven Sonata is Important”: Pianist Till Fellner Talks about his Playing


The distinguished young Viennese pianist, Till Fellner, will be playing an all-Beethoven recital in the Piano Masters Series at Boston Conservatory of Music’s Seully Hall on November 3 at 8:00 P.M. Program details can be found under Upcoming Events. BMInt interviewed him during a lull in one of his practice sessions.

Why are you doing the complete Beethoven set?

Well, the Beethoven sonatas are one of the greatest challenges for every pianist. You probably know the famous quote from Hans von Bülow, “The Well Tempered Clavier and the Beethoven sonatas are the Old Testament and the New Testament of the piano repertoire.” In the last few years, I’ve played the 48 preludes and fugues, so now it’s time to tackle the 32 Beethoven sonatas.

BMInt staff photo
Contemplating Beethoven’s Death Mask (BMInt staff photo)

Can you compare your version to others?

There are two recordings of the sonatas I admire very much. One is Alfred Brendel’s most recent recording and the other is Wilhelm Kempff’s from the ’50s. Of course, I don’t want to compare myself with these great pianists, but they have been a source of much inspiration for me.

Do you feel a special connection with Alfred Brendel? Are there any similar qualities to your playing?

Alfred Brendel is my most important musical influence. As a student of his, I’ve learned a lot. I would like to point out two things: First, Mr. Brendel has shown me both through his playing and teaching that the composer comes first and not the interpreter. So as a performer you should try to serve the composer. Second, Alfred Brendel has the wonderful ability to work on every detail of a piece but at the same time build the architecture. I hope that I have a similar attitude of respect for the intentions of the composer.

Can you suggest things we should be listening for in your recital at Boston Conservatory?

This is the fourth program in my traversal of the Beethoven sonatas. Next Tuesday’s portion gives the audience a chance to listen to some of the less well-known sonatas from various periods of Beethoven’s life. Of course we all love the famous pieces like the “Tempest” and the “Waldstein,” etc, but with a composer like Beethoven, every sonata is important. Also you will be experiencing the lyrical side of Beethoven’s music. Sometimes we only think of Beethoven’s heroic qualities, but lyricism, grace and fervent expression are equally important in his music.

Is this something you might want to do again in 50 years?

Yes, if I’m not too old..

I see you are performing Winterreise. Are you too young?

Well, I’m definitely older than Schubert when he composed it. After all, it’s not a story about an old man but rather a youth.

Are there other musical mountains you wish to climb?

The complete  Mozart piano concertos, and Haydn’s piano trios.

What Romantic music do you most relate to?

Schubert, Schumann, and Liszt.

Are there composers you will never perform?

Yes, most! The piano repertoire is vast so you have to concentrate on a certain repertoire. For me it seems the most important music is the central European (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Schumann, and Liszt). So if you want to study and play the important pieces of these composers, then you’re pretty busy. But I am also very much drawn to contemporary composers such as Birtwistle, Kurtag, Ligeti and Thomas Larcher. I really want to concentrate on great music. Life is too short to play Rachmaninoff or drink bad wine.

There’s been a lot of talk about your being an Apollonian rather than Dionysian performer. Is that a distinction that means anything to you? Sometimes audiences mistake an impassive demeanor with unemotional playing. But to audience members (such as I) not interested in contortions and gyrations, your playing is deeply emotional.

I think it depends upon what you are playing. Every piece has its specific character. So as a performer, you have to identify with the composer and composition and forget about yourself. One also hopes that one’s emotional range will continue to broaden through musical and life experiences.

Is a recital more demanding than a concerto?

Well, it’s definitely longer. Both are demanding but very different. In a recital you are alone and responsible for everything. When you play a concerto, there are other musicians involved. You have to cooperate with the conductor.

But isn’t it up to the conductor to follow you?

That’s a good question. There is the famous speech by Bernstein about his collaboration with Glenn Gould in the Brahms d minor Piano Concerto, in which the maestro wondered who was the boss — the conductor or the soloist. In the end, he followed Gould, but with clenched teeth.

What sort of chamber music interests you?

I’m in a piano trio with Lisa Batiashvili and Adrian Brendel [son of Alfred Brendel].  I’m also very interested in Lieder and therefore play frequently with tenor Mark Padmore.

Will you record the second book of WTC? The first volume is the best version I’ve ever heard. And I note it has been extremely well received.

Thank youbut I don’t know when. After all, Bach himself took 20 years off between Books I and II.

I see from your calendar that your performance schedule is very intense. Do you have much time for extra-musical interests? Tell our readers something about your leisure life.

I’m very interested in literature and film. I like to go to museums, exhibitions. At the moment I’m making a study of Luis Bunuel’s complete oeuvre…of course there’s never enough time to spend with my girlfriend.

I can tell you care profoundly about the quality of your instruments from watching you interact with piano technicians. How often are you happy with the results?

Sometimes I’m happy. It is very important to tell the piano technician exactly what you want, both in qualities of action and voicing, and then hope he can do it. Of course, every instrument is different and you have to respect its character. But within this character, a piano has to be even, which means that no matter which dynamic you play, no note should stick out. This work requires a lot of skill from the piano technician and also a lot of patience.

I understand you will be giving a master class at Boston Conservatory. Can you tell me what pieces the students are preparing and whether you enjoy teaching?

Well, I haven’t taught much so far, so I will probably be more nervous than my students. I think there will be three victims and the repertoire will be Beethoven and Schubert.

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2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. That’s not Beethoven’s death mask, it’s his life mask. There is a death mask however.

    Comment by Louis hoven — December 31, 2010 at 5:34 pm

  2. are you related to the master?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 2, 2011 at 5:15 pm

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