United Kingdom Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Schumann: Till Fellner (piano), Wigmore Hall, London 24.6.2013 (RB)
Bach: Preludes and Fugues from the Well-tempered Clavier Book II
Mozart: Piano Sonata in F K533/494
Haydn: Piano Sonata in B minor HXVI: 32
Schumann: Études Symphoniques Op 13
Till Fellner is a former winner of the Clara Haskil competition and he has won considerable critical acclaim for his performances across a wide range of repertoire. He undertook a worldwide tour between 2008 and 2010 in which he performed the complete cycle of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. He took a one-year sabbatical in 2012 to dedicate himself to the study of new repertoire and re-launched his career earlier this year in a solo recital at Carnegie Hall.
He began this recital with the first four preludes and fugues from Book II of the Well-tempered Clavier. The attention to detail, handling of fugal voicing and ornamentation were all exemplary throughout and his performance was clearly informed by a thorough knowledge of baroque period conventions. I was struck by the way in which he adhered so closely to period style while at the same time bringing out the distinctive character of each of the pieces. In the opening C major prelude he brought out the pedal point and the dialogue in the inner parts while the fugue contained much sparkling and playful counterpoint. He brought a wonderful feeling of space and architecture to the C minor fugue. In the C sharp major prelude he used subtle rubato to underscore the beauty of the modulations in the bass before going into dance mode in the ensuing contrapuntal episode while the fugue had a clockwork quality. He brought out the tragic grandeur and pathos of the C sharp minor prelude while the corresponding fugue – essentially a gigue – had a dark whirling energy.
Mozart’s sonata in F is one of the composer’s grander piano sonatas. The rondo finale was written before the other two movements and it is this which led to the double Köchel number. Fellner is a highly cultivated Mozart player but he also brings a robust quality to his performances. In the opening Allegro he ensured the contrapuntal lines were tasteful and elegant and one had a clear sense of the motivic relationships and structure of the piece. He achieved an almost symphonic breadth in the development section where the musical argument was worked through in a structured and coherent way. The Andante has a horribly exposed opening which Fellner handled brilliantly in the way in which he weighted the opening chords and kept the pulse of the piece so steady. The movement as a whole had a stately gravity and the modulations from the minor to the major were enchanting although I wondered if the tempo might have been a little quicker. The music-box opening of the finale was wonderfully realised while the passagework had a freedom and elasticity which gave the music a fresh and improvisatory feel.
The concert programme notes included the interesting point that Mozart and Beethoven tended to avoid the key of B minor as they saw it as a ‘black’ key. Haydn’s sonata in this key is therefore highly unusual for the time and provided him with an opportunity to explore this dark key in some depth. The work dates from the composer’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ period of the 1760’s and 1770’s and it is an unusually intense work. In the opening Allegro moderato, Fellner made the most of the highly inventive thematic material and the contrast between the first and second subjects. The second movement is a Menuet and here the playing was poised and elegant with Fellner displaying a pleasing sense of classical proportion. In the Presto finale, Fellner captured the restless quality of the movement and he succeeded in keeping the very fast passagework clear and even.
The final work in the recital was Schumann’s Études Symphoniques and here we were treated to a performance of the complete set of variations, including the five posthumous variations published by Brahms. The programme notes made the point that the work went through many incarnations with the composer seemingly unable to make up his mind as to which variations were in or out. I am not entirely clear how Fellner came up with the order in which he played the variations but to my mind it was not entirely satisfactory for reasons which I am not entirely able to explain. His playing of the work, however, was quite another matter. The technical demands were managed with a minimum of fuss and the full gamut of emotions including romantic ardour, inner turmoil, passion and longing all emerged from the music in quick succession. The level of technical finish and attention to detail were exceptional and Fellner used a wonderful range of tone colours to bring out the distinctive features of each piece. I was not completely convinced that he quite captured the neurotic qualities of the music and some of the manic shifts but I think going back to the composer’s original order for the variations would help with this.
Overall, this was a feast of superlative piano playing and good to see Till Fellner back again on the concert platform.