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Interview with Till Fellner on his new recording

First the obvious question: Scarcely five years after your highly acclaimed recording of Part I of the Well-Tempered Clavier you're now issuing your second Bach recording on ECM. Why not Part II?
It just turned out that way. I've been playing the Inventions much longer, and I felt the time was ripe to record them. I've been playing Part II of the WTC in concert for a year, but I don't feel ready yet.

That means you spend a lot of time studying a set of pieces before you take it into the studio.
Absolutely. After all, there are enough CDs already ...

So when another one comes along it should say something significant?
Well, I always try to do my best, of course, but in the end it can only be a snapshot. It’s also a combination of circumstances. Currently, ECM and I are working on several projects: Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos with Kent Nagano and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, and Thomas Larcher's piano concerto Böse Zellen with Dennis Russell Davies and the Munich Chamber Orchestra.

Do you remember your first encounter with Bach's Inventions and Sinfonias?
Like every piano pupil I learned some of these pieces as a child. Even back then I sensed that they’re very beautiful. The next time I took them up was in the mid 1990s when I was playing a Mozart suite. Mozart made a deep study of Bach in the mid-1780s. One of the results was a unfinished suite in the baroque style that I played for my teacher at the time, Alfred Brendel. He said that I had a penchant for contrapuntal music and advised me to deepen it a bit. When a man like Brendel says that, you take it seriously.

So you approached Bachian counterpoint from its simpler and more straightforward manifestations. Evidently it turned out that the Inventions and Sinfonias blend well in recital with the great works of the repertoire.
Yes, it was interesting to discover how varied the cycle is, beginning with its contrasting key scheme, which ascends from C major to B minor, much as in the Well-Tempered Clavier, but leaving out the more complicated keys. More than that, the pieces differ widely in character. There are dance-like pieces, to be sure, but the range extends all the way to Passion music: think of the ninth three-part piece in F minor. They even vary in their sound, in their "instrumentation" you might say. There are harpsichord-like pieces, others tend to approach the style of an old trio sonata for two solo instruments and accompaniment. Sometimes they sound like winds, sometimes like a small string ensemble. The Ninth Sinfonia that I already mentioned is probably the cycle's expressive climax.

How did you come to include the French Suite on this program?
Manfred Eicher and I found it appealing to offset the fairly rigorous Inventions with a more loosely constructed piece, one that's a bit more spacious. After all, one of the problems of interpreting the Inventions and Sinfonias is their brevity. Literally every note counts; you have to define the right character from the very first note, otherwise it's all over. The comparison may sound bold, but this absolute concentration reminds me personally of the music of Webern or the Hungarian composer György Kurtág, with whom I once worked through the Sinfonias. Paradoxically, I’ve always found the two-part pieces, with their total compression, more difficult than the three-part ones, which give you something to hold on to.

Have you ever considered playing Bach on period instruments?
My instrument is the modern grand piano. A period instrument is very different to play and it sounds completely different. Bach's Inventions were conceived with pedagogical intent, of course, though that only makes it all the more amazing how miraculous they turned out. And one of his explicit goals was to achieve a "cantabile" style. In that sense, the grand piano, with its capacity to evoke the sounds of other instruments, surely has a raison d'être. But they were also designed to demonstrate compositional techniques: I have an invention, an idea, now how can I develop and elaborate it? That's one of the reasons why the pieces are so varied in their form. Bach wanted to show his pupils everything a composer can do. There are canonic pieces and rigorous three-part counterpoint, but also development patterns that anticipate the classical period.

Viewed from the outside, your repertoire focuses on a small number of select masters from the standard canon, interspersed with forays into modern music. The pianist-composers who are otherwise so popular seem to play a subordinate role.
Not really. I've played a lot of Liszt, practically all the big pieces, among them the complete Swiss and Italian years of the Années de Pèlerinage. I used to play quite a lot of Chopin, and also some of the major works of Brahms, including both the concertos. Over the last fifteen years there were always times when I focused on particular projects. I've been considered a specialist for all sorts of things in the public eye, but I think I have a fairly big radius. And I really love to play contemporary music. But when I come to grips with virtuoso music, I take it seriously in musical terms and not as an athletic challenge.

Interview: Anselm Cybinski