During a hiatus between playing Beethoven’s Emperor for the Cliburn-sponsored celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday in Fort Worth, and his forthcoming BSO appearances with conductor Yu-An Chang on January 16th, 17th, 18th, and 21st, the celebrated Viennese pianist Till Fellner found some time to talk.
FLE: As in your previous appearance at Symphony Hall with Bernard Haitink in 2012 [our review HERE], you chose one of Mozart’s 12 great Viennese concertos. This time, it will be No. 25, K. 503, the last of the series, which he debuted in 1786.
TF: Yes, but as I have learned from William Kinderman’s book on Mozart’s piano music, he had started composing this concerto some time earlier.
Was Kinderman there?
[Laughter] We know more today because of the examination of the various staff-papers Mozart used. Around 1785, he sketched the opening tutti and wrote the first piano entrance; then he put the piece aside. This wasn’t unusual for Mozart—he kept a certain reservoir of fragments which he could take out and complete in a relatively short span of time.
It’s interesting, that when Mozart took up K. 503 again at the end of 1786, he reworked the first piano entrance (using ink in a different color). He made it much more convincing in itself, but also in the way it connects back to the reassertion of the main theme played by the orchestra. Even a genius like Mozart felt the need to correct and improve parts of his works.
What else can you say to sell K. 503 to readers?
The first movement is one of his grandest and most symphonic designs. Mozart gave both the outer movements a generosity and expansiveness of sound, which for me foreshadows the style of Beethoven’s middle period. The main theme of the third movement quotes Mozart’s own Gavotte from the ballet music of Idomeneo. So, it should dance. The pastoral second movement, without trumpets and timpani, feels more like chamber music.
So could you conduct that second movement easily from the keyboard?
More easily than the first movement.
Do you like to surprise conductors by changing your tempos or your cadenzas from what you had done in rehearsal? Or will you give four performances of this piece that are more or less the same? In other words, how improvisational can you be in a concerto?
You have to keep in mind that a big orchestra is not as flexible as a single player. There should be a certain amount of freedom and improvisation, but in general, I just try to improve my playing over the course of several performances.
How often have conductors turned to look at you with quizzical expressions — surprised and hopefully also pleased?
It’s sometimes happened. In Mozart, when you have the same theme three times, you are expected to add variations, and embellishments, and if you come up with a new version during a concert, then the conductor might notice it and even be amused.
And then you’re not invited back?
That’s also possible, of course.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re thinking and feeling while you’re playing? Are you looking ahead or behind, or are you completely in the emotional moment?
All at once. You should identify with the character of the piece, its emotions. You have to be able to listen to yourself, and to the orchestra, and to react to what you have just heard. At the same time, you have to think ahead. You also might want to keep in mind that people are listening, so you have to try to project into the audience.
Do you think it’s important for a concerto soloist to project emotions with his face and his body or is that a requirement only for a stage actor? Some pianists are very immobile and other pianists are in constant motion.
I exist somewhere in the middle. I don’t like watching musicians who exaggerate on stage, but I also don’t like those who are totally immobile and seem detached. Discrete movements can certainly underline what you want to express musically. It also depends on what you are playing. If it’s a very passionate work, you must act more extrovertly.
But we’re not going to see you on stage suffering a thousand torments or having a thousand love affairs? Will you burst into stage tears?
Actors as well as musicians must be able to feel emotions strongly without getting overwhelmed by them.
We’ve compared performances on YouTube together and spun a few CDs. Do you think that the future of classical music recording will be file sharing rather than conventional discs that you can hold in your hand? And do you believe in social media file sharing?
My views about that might sound a little bit old-fashioned.
Do you have a leather-bound tablet for reading literature?
I’m still reading books, and I like to own them.
Your Well-Tempered Clavier Book I recording sold quite well and achieved almost cult status; it was beautifully packaged, beautifully played, and provided an amazing introduction to your talent; we’re still waiting for Book II. You have played Book II have you not? Is it still something we can expect, understanding that the CD market is not what it once was of course?
I have played Book II, and I hope to complete the Well-Tempered Clavier recording one day, but I’ve never been a heavy recording artist.
You have just come out with another CD, as I recall, a recital of Liszt and Beethoven.
Yes, these are live recordings.
So, with no editing at all?
With very little editing. I have a big collection at home of both radio and archival recordings, and I listen to them as part of my working process. Rarely enough, there is a performance you might want to publish. Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage: Suisse came from a 2002 performance at Vienna’s Musikverein, as part of my first solo recital in the big hall. For some reason, I got lucky. I have always thought that this was some of my best playing. Years later, I found a 2010 archival recording from Middlebury College, Vermont, with a decent performance of Beethoven’s op. 111.
Do you not like making studio recordings anymore?
I do, but I’m very self-critical. So, instead of producing one CD per year, I have always prefered to take my time.
How difficult are you when you’re sitting in the playback room listening to various takes? Are you the most critical person in the room and most demanding?
I play through the piece, listen to it, and then try to make it better.
Do you also have a Beckmesserian Tonmeister who might hear something you didn’t hear?
Yes, a sound engineer, and also Manfred Eicher, my admired producer.
You might patch a small passage occasionally rather than do a whole movement over?
I generally play the whole movement two or three times, and, if there is a spot which I got wrong every time, then I just re-do it.
I’ve been involved in recording projects where we’ve gotten up to take 35; sometimes you finish at three in the morning when everyone is exhausted, and you don’t really know what it’s going to sound like in the light of day.
Normally, we work within a fixed time frame. However, when I think back on the studio recording of the WTC Book I, we really had only three days for two CDs, for 2 hours of music. These were long and intense days.
Last night we watched a movie together that made social media seem very frightening: Michael Haneke’s Happy End. It began and ended with some pretty scary scenes of texting and social media. Are you afraid that something similar could happen to you? Is that why you avoid this form of communication?
I am quite busy with my real life. I certainly like my privacy. And I don’t particularly like to promote myself.
But wouldn’t you like to communicate with your audience?
Sure! As an interpreter, I try to communicate the music of great composers to my audience.
Well, I think of you as wanting to leave a vertical rather than a horizontal mark on life, in other words interacting with cognoscenti intensely and not millions of people broadly.
I was interested in hearing, for instance, that when one of your piano students wanted to study the Alban Berg Sonata with you, you decided to relearn it in order to be able to teach it; that’s not something you would have been able to do if you had been wasting time with social media.
I’m glad it’s you who uses the term “wasting time,” and not I.
The reference to Haneke brings up your broader connection with the movies. I know you’ve seen every Buñuel movie and every Tarkovsky movie. What interests you in these movies?
I have written about and lectured on the music in Buñuel’s and Tarkovsky’s films. They both used music — and sounds in general — in meaningful, integral and conscious ways.
Meaning you don’t like movies with music slathered on as a shortcut because the director is not able to make his emotional points without using the music as a crutch?
Buñuel often confronts the images or the action with something very different musically: You may see an elegant man using his feet to push a violin in front of himself in order finally to trample it, while hearing a theme from Beethoven’s violin concerto. In his late films there is no background music at all. Whenever you hear music it comes directly from within the film: you can see a gramophone or somebody playing the piano. Music only materializes as part of the cinematic reality, thus enriching the film from the inside, rather than merely commenting thereon.
But wasn’t there a brilliant scene in Viridiana with a dinner in which Messiah was playing?
A gramophone on the screen plays this excerpt while the celebrating beggars are sitting around the table. Suddenly the picture freezes and it looks like The Last Supper of da Vinci.
Tarkovsky’s also very interesting in his treatment of music.
Yes, especially in his use of noises, both natural and artificial. I also analyzed some scenes from my favorite of his films, The Mirror, where music and image interact. Together, they form a continuous, dreamlike poetic vision.
Do you hate Korngold and the great Hollywood studio composers?
I’m not dogmatic. For me there are only a few very great films with wonderful background music. One that comes to mind is Last Year at Marienbad with organ music by Francis Seyrig. There are also some great films without any music, for example Buñuel’s The Diary of a Chambermaid.
Aside from some very few “slice of life” examples, my favorite films have theatrical artifice. I despise the Dogma 95 manifesto, that refuses to use any artificial lighting or any scoring. They believe that their images and dialog alone should be strong enough to carry their films.
On the other hand, going back to the “dawn of sound,” the feeling was predominant that sound destroyed film, because the late photoplays had evolved to a point of tremendous visual sophistication. When sound came in, all that was lost, because with microphones hidden here and there in flowerpots the action had to become stiff, and much of the great visual artistry and storytelling suddenly flew out the window.
This was a time of transition, and you probably think not only of the great German filmmakers, but also of some American auteurs like Chaplin, Keaton, or Harold Lloyd. On the other hand, Buñuel’s first sound film, The Golden Age (1930), provides an amazing and early example of combining image and sound.
But you can also enjoy and quote dialog from a picture as monumentally silly as The Big Lebowski. Perhaps the Coen brothers’ example has given your entire cultural outlook a broader “frame of reference.” Do you have a plan for your life as a film critic? And are there any directors whose next works you are anticipating?
Me a film critic? … But yes, I am always awaiting the latest from Jim Jarmusch, Michael Haneke, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Pawel Pawlikowski, or Kantemir Balagov.
Since you last played with the Boston Symphony, of course, you’ve been leading a very busy life as a performer and teacher. But beyond that, you also have been honored in two important ways. Bernard Haitink recently chose you to be one of the featured soloists in one of his last concerts.
Maestro Haitink invited me to participate in three projects during his last season of conducting: with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra (for his 90th birthday) and with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. Working with him has been one of the greatest honors and privileges of my life.
You also accepted an invitation to be the president of the jury at the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition. Are there artistic and execution categories in piano judging the way there are say in an ice-skating jury?
No, Busoni just asks judges for overall impressions. Their unusual system includes “yes or no” votes as well as points. In the final-three round comes an additional vote about whether or not the first ranked should receive the Busoni Prize.
What does it mean when honors are coming in as fast as grey hairs?
The situation isn’t that dramatic. I feel very grateful – and then I return to the piano and keep practicing.
Yu-An Chang conducts the BSO and pianist Till Fellner
January 16th, 17th, 18th, and 21st
Chihchun Chi-sun Lee: Formosan Triptych (world premiere; BSO commission)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 3, Polish
1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]
It’s interesting to read Fellner’s comments on Tarkovsky. Not altogether related to his upcoming Mozart appearance, but certainly an interesting point of discussion.
I recently rewatched a short documentary on Tarkovsky’s style, filmmaking, and general aesthetic that gave me the opinion that his methods were devised almost musically.
Nice interview — thanks!
Comment by Nicolas Sterner — January 13, 2020 at 2:25 pm
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