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Volume 20 Issue 6 - March 2015

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Till Fellner: Clarity

Till Fellner: Clarity FirstPAUL ENNISTill Fellner was 18 in 1990 when he was askedto play for Alfred Brendel. It was arguably thepivotal moment of his life. Three years laterhe won the Clara Haskil piano competitiongaining a modicum of name recognition and an entréeinto the world of recordings.The head of the keyboard department at the Viennaconservatory, where Fellner had been a student since1981, had suggested a meeting with Brendel in a castlein Grafenegg not far from Vienna where the notedpianist was giving a recital. Fellner was invited tolisten to Brendel’s rehearsal in the morning and thenplay a few pieces for him. The older pianist immediatelystarted teaching by correcting what the youngerman was playing. His first lesson had just begun.Brendel then suggested that Fellner call him andarrange another.Over the next 10 to 12 years, two or three times eachyear, Fellner visited London where Brendel lived andfor two or three days at a stretch, for three to five hourseach day, the lessons continued. As Fellner told me ina recent email exchange, Brendel “has been the mostimportant influence in my musical life. As a teacher healways gave me an overview of a whole piece, but also showed me howto work on all of its details. His attitude as an interpreter, who alwaystried to serve the music and the composer, will remain a model for me.”The Vienna-born Fellner has served his mentor well. In 2010 he wrotean appreciation of Brendel for The Gramophone. “Some musicians are soconcerned with detail that they can sound pedantic and lose the senseof line,” he wrote. “Others play with a lot of passion but miss some ofthe refinement.” He attributed Brendel’s great playing to his ability tocombine these two concerns.While waiting to follow up on Fellner’s answers to the questions I hademailed, I spent several hours listening to his ECM Bach recordings of theWell-Tempered Clavier Book I and Two-Part Inventions, Sinfonias andFrench Suite No. 5. His unflinching legato playing is never overbearing.Far from it. His naturalism, which flows organically, can be transformative,its clarity hypnotic; dynamism within a well-defined dynamicrange. And you only notice his formidable technique when he effortlesslyplays a passage quicker than almost anyone else, but never withouta musical reason for doing so.Fellner’s answers to my emailed questions were fascinating, conciseand informative. When I spoke to him the next day by telephone from hishome in Vienna after an intense, fulfilling tour around France, I foundhim to be thoughtful, engaged and soft-spoken but forthright.His Toronto debut March 10 under the auspices of Music Torontoincludes four preludes and fugues from Book II of the Well-TemperedClavier. I asked him to briefly characterize each of them:“As usual with Bach, the characters of the pieces are very different. ThePrelude in E major is a subtle, atmospheric piece, the eccentric E-minorPrelude is drier, more harpsichord-like. The Prelude in F major has aflowing, water-like quality, whereas the F-minor Prelude is an intimate,private piece (as often with Bach’s F-minor works). The F-major Fugueseems to me a religious piece. The fiery E-minor Fugue is written in avirtuoso style (a similar way of piano writing as in the G-major Fugue ofBook I), and the Fugues in F major and F minor are more dance-like.”Even before Fellner met Brendel, the Bach recordings of Brendel’sown teacher Edwin Fischer had been a revelation to Fellner. Every piecesounded differently and had its own distinct character. He told me thathe remembered Fischer saying in one of his books that clarity alwayscame first.The two Mozart pieces in Fellner’s March 10 recital – the Rondo in Aminor K511 and the Sonata in E-flat major K282 – are among the mostdeceptively simple yet singularly beautiful of the composer’s works. I... a musical person mustbe able to write downthe score just throughlistening to your playing.told Fellner that I’m always amazed by the brief darkness in the sonata’sfirst movement right after the first repeat where Mozart seems to go intoa hauntingly chromatic space before slipping into an almost Chopinlikemoment.“I have just studied the Sonata in E flat major” he replied, “and all Ican say is that the first movement seems to me the most beautiful anddifficult one. It is unusual for Mozart to begin a sonata with a slow movement.The chromatic passage you have mentioned can be seen as a linkto the Rondo K511, in which chromaticism plays a major role. This latepiece is very intimate, melancholic, but also gracious. There are a lot ofsurprising dynamic and articulatory markings.”Wilhelm Kempff has said that he considers Schumann’s compositionsOpus 1 through 28 the greatest, the most significant works the composerever wrote, finding “compressed genius” in every bar. I asked Fellner forhis thoughts on the final piece in his Toronto program Kreisleriana Op.16 and on Kempff too.“Kreisleriana is definitely one of Schumann’s masterworks. Whileother piano pieces were inspired by the writer Jean Paul (like the Papillonsand the Davidsbündlertänze) the character of the KapellmeisterKreisler was invented by E. T. A. Hoffmann. As I am very fond of thesewriters, I find such literary references very appealing. Another inspirationin all of Schumann’s works was of course his beloved Clara, andAlfred Brendel is probably right in characterizing the slow movementsof Kreisleriana as portraits of Clara. Another obvious influence worthmentioning in connection with my present recital program is J. S. Bach.“Although I have some personal favourites between Op. 1 and Op. 28(Davidsbündlertänze Op. 6, Fantasiestücke Op. 12, Sinfonische EtüdenOp. 13, Kinderszenen Op. 15, Kreisleriana Op. 16, Fantasie Op. 17, andHumoreske Op. 20), I am not going to argue with Wilhelm Kempff,one of the greatest pianists of all time. His recording of Kreisleriana isoutstanding.”Asked about what goes into planning a program such as this one,Fellner mentioned how appropriate Stankovski’s Traumprotokoll(Dream Journal) was. Fellner commissioned the five-to-six-minutepiece (which consists of eleven mini-bagatelles) last fall and finds thatits dream-like, night atmosphere goes very well with “this very eccentricand kind of crazy Schumann piece” which it immediately precedesin the Toronto recital.Fellner likes to play two programs per year, one for the fall season andanother for the spring (which he has just now begun and will play untilContinues to page 788 | March 1 - April 7, 2015 thewholenote.comBEN EALOVEGA

O Dowland!DAVID PODGORSKILet us now take a moment to praise John Dowland. The earlymusic movement owes much to the famed English composerand master of the Renaissance lute song. He gave us a sizeablebody of work that has come to function as a kind of soundtrack tothe English Renaissance for modern listeners. As impressive, in his owntime, Dowland was famous throughout Europe, not only as a composerof popular songs (nearly 90) but also for his solo lute music (nearly 90of those works as well).As a Catholic in late Elizabethan England, though, Dowland found itdifficult to make a living in the early stages of his career. Although hewas a trained musician with a Bachelor of Music from Oxford (apparentlythey gave out music degrees in the 16th century too), Dowlandblamed intolerance against Catholics for his inability to get a positionin the English court, eventually leaving England in 1594, to make hisfortune abroad on the Continent. His exceptional talents took him farand wide, and he earned renown from Denmark to Italy. After nearlytwo decades abroad, Dowland finally returned to England as a lutenistin the Catholic court of James I. Although the well-travelled composerwas a citizen of the world who, as the story goes, eventually camehome to England, he has come to symbolize a particularly Englishsound for the music of his time.I emphasize Dowland’s Englishness this way because there’s agroup playing in Toronto in March that proposes an alternate historyfor him. The weekend of March 27 and 28 will see Dowland reimaginedas a composer of Irish folk music by Montreal early music groupLa Nef, who will come to Trinity St-Paul’s Centre as part of the TorontoConsort’s guest artist series.Granted, there is some evidence that supports this appropriation/repatriationof Dowland, but the way I see it, it’s spurious atworst, and circumstantial at best. He was a Catholic, it’s true, butthere were more than a few English Catholics at the time. There’salso the dedication Dowland affixed to his song “From Silent Night”to “my loving countryman, Mr. John Foster the younger, merchant ofDublin, in Ireland,” but Foster could very well have been an Englishexpat. There’s not a whole lot else to convince a sceptic like me thatthe composer merits repatriation. Nevertheless, Ensemble La Nef hasboldly decided to reimagine the father of English song as a full-onIrish composer, rearranging his music in a folk style and playingthe tunes on folk instruments like the cittern, the Irish flute and theviolin along with historical instruments like the viola da gamba andtheorbo. So if it seems like La Nef was determined to turn the earlymusic world on its ear when they released Dowland in Dublin in2012, they succeeded. It was a great success for the group, selling outevery copy at several concerts on a North American tour. When La Neffinally makes a stop in Toronto to promote the album, Toronto audienceswill not only hear a new perspective on Dowland’s music, but asimportant, get to decide for themselves if it works..“When I first thought of the project, I was doing folk song versionsof art songs and I was interested in taking so-called serious music andseeing if it could work in a folk context,” says citternist Seán Dagher.“I realized that Dowland’s music could serve those particular needs –his music has some really beautiful, simple melodies that lend themselvesto a folk adaptation.”Dagher’s interpretations finally came to fruition when he foundhimself performing on his cittern at a party with some members ofLa Nef in attendance. He decided to take a risk and perform his ownfolk-inspired version of Dowland’s tune “Come Again” for the veteranmedieval and Renaissance group. La Nef was delighted with Dagher’sperformance and decided then and there that this was an idea thathad enough potential for a full album. Combing Dowland’s 90 songs,they selected 17 that would lend themselves to a folk interpretationand proceeded to make a total overhaul of the music – stripping awayalmost all of the composer’s arrangements and making their own inthe process.“I really tried to treat Dowland’s music like it’s an arrangement ofTILL FELLNER, PianistELIAS QUARTETThursday,March 26at 8 1-800-708-6754order online at March 1 - April 7, 2015 | 9atCanadianHeritageTuesday,March 10at 8 pmThursday, March 19 at 8 pmELLIOT MADOREBaritonePatrimoinecanadien

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