Pianist Till Fellner – In allegiance with the composer’s intent
A disciple of Alfred Brendel since 1990 and known to share his mentor’s fondness for the inveterate Austro-Germanic repertoire, Fellner also shares the veteran’s suggestion that piano playing is a ‘long-term objective’ – a continuous dialectic immersion into detail to illuminate an essential perspective and build on its inner principles. After winning first prize at the 1993 Clara Haskil International Piano Competition, Fellner followed suit with his own extensive dedication to two of the milestones of the piano: Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Beethoven’s cycle of 32 piano sonatas, gaining critical success and international engagements. At times too easily shelved as ‘specialist’ with a particular interest in the pillars of the classical genre, Fellner, once coined a ‘musical chameleon,’ offers great versatility and imagination in a body of works that spans (except for Rachmaninov’s oeuvre) much of the gamut of solo and chamber works, with an increasing scope of contemporary repertoire. In a personal conversation in his mother tongue, the pianist, based on his somewhat publicity-shy and no-nonsense stage demeanor often portrayed as distant and removed, appears rather candid, witty and quite jovial; a timeless and elegant pianist with a bend for profound inquiry.
At forty-six, the sophisticated Austrian pianist recently gave his long overdue debut with the New York Philharmonic. In Fellner’s hands, under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.22 in E-flat Major, K.482, was projected glass clear into the rear of the hall, engaging the audience purposefully and with detailed finesse. Fellner chose to add tender appeal with Paul Badura-Skoda’s cadenza for the first movement, leaving on a high note with the finale’s vigorously virtuosic Hummel cadenza. With nowhere to hide and every note exposed in the dense drama of the score, Fellner revealed a deep affinity with the piece and its subtle character changes. There was a present intimacy, and the delectable joy of performance, perhaps supported by the fact that the concerto was among the pieces with which he won first prize at the Clara Haskil International Piano Competition – the first Austrian to do so – at a pivotal instant in 1993 that launched his steadily mounting career. Photo credit: Ilona Oltuski “When I am fascinated with something, I want to understand it fully. I am curious to learn more, to explore and delve into the subject whole-heartedly,” says Fellner. That may relate to the work of a composer, literature, or movies – he adores Buñuel’s cinematic oeuvre and the crucial role music plays in it compared to the usual soundtrack; it is this probing quest for discovery that drives him as a performer.
Fellner’s penetrating portrayal and rapport with the composition at hand, a kind of ‘being in the zone,’ is an all-encompassing mental and physical task. Before going on stage, his backstage ritual incorporates autogenic training – relaxing and concentrating at once so that: “by the time I enter the stage I am already in the mindset of the piece I am going to perform, its mood and particular character,” says Fellner. It is a constant learning process. Fellner is one to track his efforts, compare what worked and what did not, willing to change details or even an entire approach. “I am often recording myself in practice and performance, which helps me to understand a great deal from each experience. In a performance there is always something unexpected happening, sometimes also things one likes. It’s important to take a step back and reassess, like a painter who moves away from his easel to glance at his work from a distance. The importance of a critical stance, seeing things with different eyes over time and taken out of its immediate emotional context during performance, applies to music as well,” he says.
Pianists have to adjust constantly to new instruments, adapt their technique for touch, speed, and volume, and meet high athletic demands while fine tuning their aesthetic response. To optimize his technique with a physically conscious approach, but also in the interest of being able to instruct his students from a more informed perspective, Fellner acquired counsel from a former Taubman pupil, Sheila Paige. The legendary Dorothy Taubman had devised a systematic approach to understanding the physiological formation that underlie a natural piano technique, based on optimized (strain free) movements that allow for a highly expressive command at the keyboard. Fellner met with Paige last year in Philadelphia and found her instructions highly insightful: “She has a strong background in Alexander Technique and the Taubman approach but has infused both practices’ insights into a concept of her own,” he explains. And indeed many descendants of the Taubman approach are known to have modified the rather complex application, to differing degrees.
Just as positions on technique are varying, defining the role of a concert pianist as an artist has been identified by diverse standards, throughout the history of piano performance. Amongst pianists, Brendel – Fellner’s most important inspiration – is often associated with the ‘apollonian’ approach of a dominant thinker, as opposed to the more emotionally-driven ‘virtuoso’ performer. Fellner, however, does not acknowledge such artificial division; he is not one to identify with the academic rigidity of any historical approaches and does not believe in any performance that remains ‘objective’ or unemotional. His credo remains that any interpretation has to be substantiated by the score. Fellner’s many lessons and time spent with Brendel helped him identify the craft of how to approach and reveal his values as a performer: “Many of Brendel’s explanations seemed so simple and made so much sense, how come I did not think about this before, by myself? More often his remarks are kept sparse, like when he critiqued [a somewhat] chaotic performance of Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca: ‘Remember this is still a rendering of a sonnet, a strict lyrical form! You bear a fever of 102, when a 97.5 temperature would be adequate,’” he describes his mentor’s typical rhetoric at the piano, which was often accompanied by humming and animated gesticulation.
Alfred Brendel quit the podium in 2008, but after their many years together, Fellner’s relationship with the revered master has developed increasingly into an intimate kinship based on mutual respect. In 2004, Brendel gave the following description of his student: “Till Fellner has all the ingredients: intelligence, sensitivity, curiosity, an ample aesthetic appetite, a high capacity for concentration, tenacity, an enviable command of the instrument, strong rhythmic control.”
Fellner compares his role as a performer with that of an actor, who becomes the different characters of a score and brings them to life according to the vision of the composer. While every interpretation of a work bears the individually-nuanced fingerprint of its performer, Fellner resents interpretations built on personal mannerism: “My responsibility always lies with that original artistic vision. Rather than to create my own version and to willfully take liberties, my goal is to figure out what the composer wanted and to reveal it as accurately as possible. No one wants a robot-like effect of course, just playing the notes is never desirable,” he remarks, and continues, “Playing the piano for me always was about the journey, a long-term goal of approaching perfection, which never can be fully achieved, of course. Ideally one loses oneself within the task. But it’s also a matter of being in the moment, intense and exciting…And it’s a lot of fun, there is such a broad variety and each piece is different.” With Brendel, he is convinced that there are no rules that slavishly apply to every work – instead you have to look carefully at every bar, and then you have to try to find solutions.
Fellner possessed an early talent, as well as an early curiosity for music that was developed by regular visits to the lively Vienna concert scene with his parents and sister. His resume confirms his inquisitiveness and flexibility as much as his prioritization of long-term goals. He only graduated in 2003, after his studies at the Vienna conservatory were sporadically interrupted by the swift onset of performance offers. In 2001 and then again in 2012, though, Fellner took a year-long sabbatical devoted to exploring new repertoire and reevaluating his goals. Since 2013, Fellner, who resides in his native Vienna and was married last year, teaches at the Zurich Hochschule der Künste. As an exclusive recording artist for the ECM label, his releases include the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Two & Three-Part Inventions of J. S. Bach, Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos. 4 & 5 with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Kent Nagano, and, most recently, a CD of chamber music by Harrison Birtwistle. Being in the here-and-now of music’s contemporary evolution is as important to Fellner as exploring the traditional masters. He has given the world premieres of works by Kit Armstrong, Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Larcher, Alexander Stankovski, and Hans Zender. In 2016, an Alpha Classics release of the Belcea Quartet’s recording of the Brahms Piano Quintet with Fellner, a frequent collaborator with the quartet, won the Diapason d’Or. Fellner’s ongoing collaboration with British tenor Mark Padmore, with whom he toured Japan in 2017, will continue, among others, with Lieder recitals in Vienna and Salzburg. Fellner participated among many distinguished artists, including Alfred Brendel, in the documentary Pianomania about the Austrian Stefan Knüpfer, a Steinway virtuoso piano tuner. Fellner’s current project, a complete Schubert cycle which will span four concerts in total, will be presented among other international destinations at this year’s distinguished Schubertiade Festival in the towns of Hohenems and Schwarzenberg, Austria. Ilona Oltuski