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Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 846-869
Till Felner (Piano)
Till Fellner Records Bach's Well Tempered Clavier Book I

K-1

J.S. Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier

WTC 1: 24 Preludes & Fugues BWV 846-869

Till Fellner (Piano)

ECM 28502

Sep 2002

2-CD / TT: 114:36

Recorded at Jugendstiltheater, Vienna, Austria.
Discussions: WTC 1 BWV 846-869 - played by Till Fellner
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Till Fellner Records Bach's Well Tempered Clavier Book I

Donald Satz wrote (May 3, 2004):
Most readers have likely heard of Glenn Gould, Edwin Fischer, Sviatoslav Richter, Rosalyn Tureck, András Schiff, Angela Hewitt, Samuel Feinberg, and Friedrich Gulda. In addition to being outstanding pianists, each has recorded Bach's Well Tempered Clavier and received great praise. As a result, it is treacherous repertoire to enter. The chances that any new piano recording will compare well to the established favorites are quite low, and Till Fellner has not previously recorded any Bach at all. Therefore, he faces an immense challenge.

Given that Fellner is hardly a household name, one would think that the ECM liner notes would provide a few paragraphs about this young man - one would be wrong. Absolutely nothing is said about Fellner, although there are two photographs of him at the piano. I do own a couple of Fellner discs on Erato, one of Schubert solo piano music and the other having two Beethoven Piano Concertos. I haven't heard either disc for a few years, and my memory of them is rather vague.

One thing I won't have for many years is a vague recollection of Fellner's Well Tempered Clavier. His performances exhibit a well defined style informed by lean textures of pristine quality, rounded contours, subtle intensity, and exceptional detail of inner voices and overall voice interplay. Legato phrasing is emphasized, while Fellner's staccato is lightly applied. His readings tend to be very warm and affectionate, playing down the power and bite in Bach's music.

The warmth of Fellner's performances is shown to wonderful advantage in many of the pieces and is best exhibited in the Preludes in C major, C sharp major, and B major. Fellner clearly conveys his love of this music with a glow that penetrates the listener.

The most compelling aspect of Fellner's interpretations comes from the Bach fugues that sound as if Bach is dissecting the dark side of the soul. These pieces, such as the Fugues in D sharp minor, F minor, and B flat minor, are quite bleak in outlook with infrequent but heavenly rays of light. Fellner plays these pieces superbly with an incisive sense of inevitability that rivals the performances of Gustav Leonhardt. Also, Fellner is more lyrical than Leonhardt with more supple phrasing. After listening to Fellner, I feel that my underside has been 'sliced and diced'. His bleak and severe presentations are infectious, making Bach's rays of light all the more stunning and enlightening.

I mentioned that Fellner plays down the music's power and bite, and this feature is the only reservation I have about the performances. In pieces such as the Preludes in C minor and A minor, Fellner can be rather subdued and very much the opposite of the fiery Gould and Richter. It isn't that Fellner tries to be fiery but can't succeed; he obviously has no interest in conveying these tremendous emotional surges.

As for the soundstage, it is well detailed and rich with a little more reverberation than I find ideal. However, it is certainly high-grade modern sound that you won't find in the treasured sets from Gould, Tureck, and Gulda. The liner notes are exceptional in offering the 'long view', but there are at least a couple of 'typos' in the track listings.

Don's Conclusions: It is rare to come across Bach performances of the warm and glowing variety (the "Papa Bach" category) co-mingled with striking portrayals of the underside of the human condition. This is what Tell Fellner offers us, and only Rosalyn Tureck in her Deutsche Grammophon set is equally effective in providing this mix of qualities.

In terms of other comparisons, Fellner sounds very much like Keith Jarrett at first blush. However, further examination reveals that Fellner's rhythms are more elastic than Jarrett's, and Jarrett is light-years away from the incisive emotional messages conveyed by Fellner. Another recording of the Well Tempered Clavier that has similarity with Fellner's is the Nonesuch from Edward Aldwell, but Aldwell's textures are much fuller.

Ultimately, I consider the Fellner set an essential acquisition. I may prefer Tureck and Gould by a small margin, but those recordings show their age. Therefore, there's room at the top for an exceptional modern set of performances, and Fellner more than meets the high standards needed to attain such a position in the Bach discography.

 

Feedback to the Review

Mats Winther wrote (May 3, 2004):
Donald Satz wrote:
< Well Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 846-869 [...]
Most readers have likely heard of
Glenn Gould, Edwin Fischer, Sviatoslav Richter, Rosalyn Tureck, András Schiff, Angela Hewitt, Samuel Feinberg, and Friedrich Gulda. [...] >
Thanks for the review. I just want to strike a blow for Jenõ Jandó. I think his version of the Well Tempered Clavier is quite superb because it catches that heartfelt energetic feeling which, I think, is the hallmark of Bach. I don't like Glenn Gould's version at all.

However, the sound of the Jandó recording is bad. But, I fixed that and reburnt the CD:s. Bad recordings is the tragedy of classical music today.

Charles Francis wrote (May 3, 2004):
Donald Satz wrote:
< Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Solo Keyboard Music
Well Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 846-869
Till Fellner, piano
Recorded Jugendstiltheater, Vienna, September 2002
Released April 2004
ECM New Series 1853/54 B0002285-02 [116:58] >
Are you familiar with Turek's BBC recordings of the WTC? If so, how does Fellner compare?

Brent Miller wrote (May 3, 2004):
[To Charles Francis] Elaine...Also try Larry Kursar..........

Miguel Muelle wrote (May 5, 2004):
Donald Satz wrote:
< Fellner plays these pieces superbly with an incisive sense of inevitability that rivals the performances of Gustav Leonhardt. Also, Fellner is more lyrical than Leonhardt with more supple phrasing. >
Thanks, as usual, Don. I value your reviews tremendously -- more so now that I am a piano student, and have begun listening to many interpreters of Bach. I was slightly confused by your mention of Leonhardt, since he records only on harpsichord (AFAIK). Am I wrong, or are you simply comparing the interpretations, albeit on different instruments? If so, is that "fair"?

I have listened closely to Gould, Schiff and Richter do the WTC. I alternately prefer the first two depending on the day... but although there is much to like in it, I find Richter's WTC a bit gruff at times, almost "clunky". I look forward to hearing Hewitt, whom I am liking more and more in other Bach, and also Turek, although, for me, her last Goldberg lacked flow (IMVHO).

I will be alert for Fellner, for sure.

Donald Satz wrote (May 5, 2004):
Miguel Muelle writes:
< I was slightly confused by your mention of Leonhardt, since he records only on harpsichord (AFAIK). Am I wrong or are you simply comparing the interpretations, albeit on different instruments. If so, is that "fair"? >
Most certainly. My primary reason for bringing up Leonhardt's Bach performances on harpsichord was to comment that both he and Leonhardt are masters at conveying the inevitability of Bach's music. Inevitability is not a product of the instrument used, but a product of the musical approach and execution of the performer. In macro-terms, it requires a long view of musical progression, and its micro-elements are rhythmic patterns, pacing, articulation, beat, etc. These are universal qualties not tied to any particular instrument.

In the many past reviews I have done of Bach solo keyboard music, there are times I have used both harpsichord and piano versions for comparision. Sometimes I only use for comparision the same type of instrument, but that's mainly for ease of administration on my part. A harpsichord is not a piano, but Bach's music remains the same.

As an aside, I have a humorous anecdote revolving around Bach. Glen Wilson is an exceptional Bach harpsichordist whose Well Tempered Clavier is available on Teldec (best harpsichord version on the market). A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Wilson e-mailed me, asking if I would like him to send me a copy of his recording of the Goldberg Variations that Teldec deleted a few years ago. Of course I said yes, and it came in the mail within a week. I intended to e-mail him back to let him know I received the disc but lost his address (I lose a lot of things).

A couple of days ago, my wife answered the phone and eventually motioned for me to take the phone. To my great surprise, it was Glen Wilson from Germany just checking up on whether I did receive what he sent. After the phone call was over, I noticed my wife chuckling non-stop. I asked her what was causing the laughing, and she reported that Mr. Wilson had asked her, "Is this the home of Don Satz, the Bach specialist"? I had just inhaled a gulp of orange juice, and the 'specialist' designation made me laugh so much that the juice came flying out of my mouth and zoomed right on to my dog's face. My wife and I kept laughing for about a minute. She knows and would agree that I only consider myself a specialist in procrastination. In the meantime, my dog Jackson runs for cover whenever I pour myself a glass of orange juice.

Donald Satz wrote (May 6, 2004):
[To Charles Francis & Brent Miller] I am familiar with Tureck's BBC recordings, and her soundstage is so different from Fellner's. Hers is dry, stark, and clinical; Fellner's is rich and richer. The Tureck set that's more similar to Fellner's is her DG set having a much warmer sound. I prefer both Turecks to Fellner, because he doesn't like to bite. However, I'm very glad to own Fellner.

Charles Francis wrote (May 6, 2004):
[To Donald Satz] I only have her BBC recordings - a fairly recent acquisition following rave reviews on this group some time back (yourself, perhaps?). Unfortunatly, I haven't had time to listen to much of it yet.

Miguel Muelle wrote (May 6, 2004):
Donald Satz wrote:
< Most certainly. My primary reason for bringing up Leonhardt's Bach performances on harpsichord was to comment that both he and Leonhardt are masters at conveying the inevitability of Bach's music. Inevitability is not a product of the instrument used, but a product of the musical approach and execution of the performer. In macro-terms, it requires a long view of musical progression, and its micro-elements are rhythmic patterns, pacing, articulation, beat, etc. These are universal qualties not tied to any particular instrument. >
I understand exactly what you are saying. "Inevitability" is a great word for it. I realize that when listening to a lesser interpretation, the notes are all succeeding each other correctly, and even making musical sentences, but they are not part of any sort of narrative (not in the literal programmatic sense) that makes any sense. I had always assumed that one could not discuss harpsichord and piano versions in the same thought, but that is obviously wrong. Is this particular to Bach? I don't know if others wrote so many pieces that could be played on various instruments and still work so well...

< As an aside, I have a humorous anecdote revolving around Bach. Glen Wilson is an exceptional Bach harpsichordist whose Well Tempered Clavier is available on Teldec (best harpsichord version on the market). ...
"Is this the home of Don Satz, the Bach specialist"? I had just inhaled a gulp of orange juice, and the 'specialist' designation made me laugh so much that the juice came flying out of my mouth and zoomed right on to my dog's face. My wife and I kept laughing for about a minute. She knows and would agree that I only consider myself a specialist in procrastination. In the meantime, my dog Jackson runs for cover whenever I pour myself a glass of orange juice. >
At least your dog has learned the art of the fugue.

Donald Satz wrote (May 7, 2004):
Miguel Muelle writes:
< I had always assumed that one could not discuss harpsichord and piano versions in the same thought, but that is obviously wrong. Is this particular to Bach? >
Not at all. I feel they can be discussed in the same conversation no matter who is the composer. For example, Angela Hewitt has now recorded on piano two volumes of the harpsichord music of Francois Couperin, and using harpsichord versions for comparison is quite valid and might even be necessary due to the dearth of "Couperin on Piano" recordings. The same applies to Scarlatti and all the composers of the high-baroque period. For earlier periods, it might not be a great idea because of the greater prevalence of severity of that music such as from Buxtehude, Froberger, etc.

Another way to look at it concerns market forces. For potential buyers of a set of the Well Tempered Clavier who have no sets at all and also have no preference concerning instrumentation, the entire field is within the market. I remember doing a review project on recordings of the Art of Fugue - used piano, harpsichord, clavichord, recorders, string quartet, consort group, chamber ensembles with brass, etc. It was a great experience (for me anyways).

 

Fellner and Piano vs. Harpsichord

Larry Sherwood wrote (June 5, 2004):
I have been off the List for three months, and only got back on a couple of weeks ago. It's good to have the posts back in my mailbox, but I've noticed the volume is down a bit (ahem, that's not entirely a bad thing). In any case, this month's Stereophile magazine had a review by David Patrick Stearns of a recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier by the young Austrian pianist, Till Fellner. I enjoyed the historical perspective of the review and would be interested if anyone else has an opinion of this recording or others mentioned in the review, so I thought I'd share it with the List. I also hope to stimulate comments regarding whether Bach is beserved by the piano or the harpsichord (the List could use a good religious war about now). I've also included links to other reviews of Fellner's performances, where comments by some chap named Don Satz may be found.

http://www.straight.com/content.cfm?id"91
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/NVD/BWV846-893-Fellner.htm

To those who listen to Bach casually, this new recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier, by Till Fellner, is sheer pleasure- its legato line clean, graceful, and intelligently colored, its sound picture warm, clear, and inviting. But to those who follow Bach performance, the recording also signifies larger things- such as a triumphant culmination of the past 20 years of Bach on piano.

In 1985, the much-celebrated 300th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian coincided with the emergence of pianist Andras Schff as a major recording presence. Prior to that, Bach seemed to be unofficially banned on piano everywhere but in ever-isolated Russia. Of course, there was Glenn Gould, but his obsession with clarity apologized for his instruments of choice, his later performances particularly negating the piano's distinctive expressive possibilities. Only the harpsichord was sanctioned by the historically informed performance community; even Bach pianist Rosalyn Tureck periodically defected to that instrument. Schiff's breakthrough came with no proof of academic validity: he silenced criticism through irresistible musicality.

He still does. But with his life increasingly taken up with other repertoire and conducting, Schiff's style of legato-but-not-opaque Bach has been taken up by others: first, with even more charm, by Angela Hewitt, and now, with even more probing intelligence, by Till Fellner.

Better known in Europe than in America, Fellner has made superb recordings of Mozart piano concertos, among other works, and has the unqualified endorsement of no less than Alfred Brendel, who as one of his teachers has said that Fellner has, "all the ingredients to be a great pianist and sustain a long career." So seemingly effortless and natural is Fellner's art that, at first, one doesn't know what to say, aside from one's sense that this is exactly the way music should be. Then one is reminded that this is music for which the composer left few dynamic markings. It's tabula rasa - all interpreters must create their own version of Bach's world, and Fellner's is more rich and complete unto itself than any since the iconoclastic 1970's recordings by Sviatoslav Richter (RCA GC 60949).

Fellner takes an essentially vocal approach. Just as a great singer such as Renee Fleming creates the illusion of a floating vocal line, so does Fellner establish a sense of hovering sound, but one that takes on great specificity in characterizing Bach's intricate counterpoint. Nothing so new about that, but rarely has this sort of sound been used to accommodate so much detail of articulation or range of emotion, especially in that least vocal of musical forms, the fugue. One feels as if one is peering into a microscope and witnessing the inner working of some wondrous organism. More specifically thrilling are Fellner's tempo accelerations: He can take off like a shot without breaking a sweat.

The Russian Bach pianists, such as Richter, achieved expressive range by enlarging the frame of Bach's music- sound and gesture took on heroic proportions, distorting existential despair; Fellner reveals that quality from a slightly safer distance while allowing other emotional colors to intermingle and revealing the graceful lines of the piece's musical architecture. Such a miniaturist approach, made possible by Fellner's ultra-refined technique, implies great and profuound things with incredibly minute means.

Yet Fellner doesn't displace the recordings that have come before his. His Zen-like balance and integration of interpretive priorities is a lens through which one can re-appreciate the unlimited interpretive possibilities- both his and others'- in this supremely great music.

David Patrick Stearns: http://www.stereophile.com/

Donald Satz wrote (June 5, 2004):
Larry Sherwood writes:
< In any case, this month's Stereophile magazine had a review by David Patrick Stearns of a recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier by the young Austrian pianist Till Fellner. >
I thank Larry for including Stearn's review in his posting. My review, in the Classical Archives and on MusicWeb, comes to similar conclusions; the Fellner WTC I is an exceptional recording.

< I also hope to stimulate comments regarding whether Bach is better served by the piano or the harpsichord (the List could use a good religious war about now). >
I don't see any need for a war as my view is that Bach is best served by artists who immerse themselves in Bach's soundworld and emotional content, be it on harpsichord or piano. I consider the debate surrounding piano vs. harpsichord to be moot. Fellner's set is a great one because of his artistry, not because he uses a piano.

Donald Satz wrote (June 6, 2004):
There are a couple of considerations I neglected to mention in my previous posting on this thread. One is that Bach, of course, never composed for the modern piano and that it's likely his keyboard works would not exactly be the same if he had a modern piano to hear and use.

The other aspect is that some folks simply don't like the sound of a harpsichord, and there's no point in listening to instruments not appreciated.

 

Well Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 846-869: Details
Recordings:
Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001
Comparative Review:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
WTC I - D. Barenboim [D. Satz] | WTC I - D. Barenboim [P. Bright] | WTC I - L. Beausejouir & A. Vieru | WTC I - T. Fellner | WTC I - E. Fischer | WTC I - M. Horszowski | WTC I - C. Jaccottet | WTC I - R. Kirkpatrick | WTC I - T. Koopman | WTC I - W. Landowska | WTC I - R. Levin | WTC I - O. Mustonen | WTC I - E. Parmentier | WTC I - S. Richter | WTC I - S. Schepkin
General Discussions:
Part 1
Discussions of Individual Recordings:
WTC I - T. Fellner
Well Tempered Clavier Book II, BWV 870-893: Details
Recordings:
Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001
Comparative Review:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
WTC II - D. Barenboim [P. Bright] | WTC II - G. Cooper | WTC II - F. Gulda | WTC II - A. Hewitt | WTC II - R. Kirkpatrick | WTC II - J. Middleton
General Discussions:
Part 1
Well Tempered Clavier Books I&II, BWV 846-893:
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
WTC I&II - B.v. Asperen, S. Ross & G. Wilson | WTC I&II - E. Crochet | WTC I&II - O. Dantone | WTC I&II - S. Feinberg | WTC I&II - A. Hewitt | WTC II&II - T. Nikolayeva | WTC II&II - L. Thiry [N. Halliday] | WTC I&II - Z. Ruzickova

Till Fellner: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Till Fellner Records Bach's Well Tempered Clavier Book I
Discussions of Instrumental Recordings:
WTC 1 BWV 846-869 - T. Fellner

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