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Good Things Befall Fellner


Viennese Pianist Till Fellner is the most sought-after protégé of Alfred Brendel and is very well known for a discography which includes what is for this writer the standard version of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier (Book I).  Fellner’s recent performances of the complete Beethoven sonatas in several important venues here in the States, in Canada, Europe and Japan have added to his luster. Though no stranger to Boston audiences, Fellner will just be getting around to making his BSO debut since celebrating his recent 40th birthday.  He has already played twice at the Boston Conservatory Piano Masters’ Series, once on WGBH radio, and three times for private concerts at The Harvard Musical Association.  But his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (on April 26, 27 and 28 at Symphony Hall) will be the first chance for large local audiences to hear him.

BMInt: How did it come about that Bernard Haitink invited you to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat, K. 482 with the BSO?

Till Fellner on "une barque sur l'océan" (BMInt staff photo)

Fellner: In September 2010 Maestro Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra asked me to play a series of concerts in Amsterdam and Brussels as a replacement for Maurizio Pollini, who had to cancel because of illness. I played Beethoven’s C-minor Concerto. After this unexpected and felicitous first collaboration, Maestro Haitink asked that I be his soloist in a Mozart concerto with the Boston Symphony.  I knew I was going to be on sabbatical for the calendar year 2012, so at first I hesitated. But the honor was so great and the chance to collaborate with him once more so compelling, that I decided to make an exception.  I suggested a couple of concertos and the BSO chose K. 482.

What is special about this concerto?

Let me point out three things:

It’s the first Mozart concerto that uses the clarinet, his favorite wind instrument. In general, the woodwinds have a prominent role in this piece. The orchestration is very colorful.

The main character of the second movement is not calm and contemplative, but rather excited, a concealed passion. The form is unusual too; it’s a combination of variations and rondo form. The episodes are ruled by the woodwinds, the piano pauses. The wonderful coda combines elements of the whole movement.

In the middle of the finale we find an “Andantino cantabile” section in A-flat major. Mozart had used a similar formal device in his “Jenamy” Concerto, K. 271. But the character of these two episodes is different: gracious rapture in K. 271, restrained yearning in K. 482. The latter reminds us of the “Larghetto” in the finale of the second act of Così fan tutte, where the lovers try to drown their sorrows, to forget what happened to them. But they will never forget.

Obviously you don’t think of Mozart as a delicate porcelain doll?

Mozart, to quote my teacher Alfred Brendel, is neither made of porcelain, nor of marble, nor of sugar.

So what was he actually made of?

Well, to stay with our image, I would say: A rare material of boundless qualities and possibilities.

Will you improvise your own cadenzas as BMInt’s editor, Robert Levin often does?

No, I will play cadenzas by Paul Badura-Skoda in the first movement and Johann Nepomuk Hummel in the third movement. Mozart himself was of course able to improvise a cadenza and so are a few modern pianists like Robert Levin. I am not. Fortunately, Mozart wrote down several of his cadenzas which can serve as a model. We know for example, that in his cadenzas he never leaves the main key of the movement and that he stays within the character of the piece. Having said this, one must admit that Hummels’s cadenza is not completely in style – but I still like it for its virtuosity.

What are the plans for your sabbatical?

I’m working on the second book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier again and also on some new repertoire: Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze and Symphonische Etüden, some Mozart and Haydn sonatas, and the Ravel Concerto in G.

Overall I am spending a little less time at the instrument this year because I have a lot of other things to do: take lessons in composition, read, watch films, particularly those of Luis Buñuel. I also hope to write a few essays.

Is there anything you just do for fun?

(Laughing) This might not be your idea of fun, but it’s certainly a lot of fun for me.

What are you reading?

At the moment I’m reading a lot of Robert Musil. Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities) is one of my favorite books because of its irony, precision both in thinking and feeling and its attempts to describe mystical experiences without becoming irrational. I want to explore his other works.

I’ve also been immersed in William E. Caplin’s Classical Form, a book building on ideas first introduced by Schoenberg and later developed by Erwin Ratz in Einführung in die musikalische Formenlehre (Introduction to the Study of Musical Forms). By the way, he uses the first movement of K. 482 as an example to demonstrate classical “Concerto form.”

How did you celebrate your 40th birthday?

Rather quietly. I didn’t consider it an important achievement.

This sounds like false modesty. So what milestones are really important to you? 

Finishing the complete cycle of the Beethoven sonatas was, for example, a much more significant chapter ending.

Then what will be the next chapter or book in your life?

After my sabbatical, the Well Tempered Clavier (Book II) again.

See BMInt’s related review here.

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