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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Well Tempered Clavier: Book I, BWV 846-869
Till Fellner, piano
Rec. Jugendstiltheater, Vienna, September 2002
ECM NEW SERIES 1853/54 B0002285-02 [54’05 + 60’41]


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I might as well state my opinion that Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier is the greatest body of music ever created. It consists of two Books, each having a series of twenty-four preludes and fugues corresponding to the twenty-four keys. This highly mathematical and complex body of music is best thought of as a logical entity. However, it is also true that each prelude and fugue well stands on its own, resulting in ninety-six distinct pieces of music.

In addition to exploring a wide array of musical structures through the different keys, Bach also offers us the full spectrum of the elements of the human condition with all the warts exposed. The Well Tempered Clavier is a marvel of architecture and the human spirit.

Till Fellner is entering a field populated with exceptional piano recordings from Richter, Tureck, Gould, Aldwell, Gulda, Feinberg, Schiff and Fischer. To the best of my knowledge, this is Fellner’s first excursion on record into the world of Bach, and he has assumed a huge challenge. I am familiar with the limited number of recordings Fellner has made including Erato discs of Beethoven Piano Concertos and Schubert piano music, and I have found his performances admirable without displacing favorite versions.

How does Fellner convey the world of Bach? 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 the interplay among voices. Legato phrasing is emphasized, and staccato requirements are lightly applied. The readings tend to be very warm and affectionate, playing down some of 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 captured 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 where one can hear Bach 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 this music superbly with an incisive sense of inevitability that rivals Gustav Leonhardt’s Bach recordings. Also, Fellner is more lyrical than Leonhardt, largely due to suppler phrasing. After listening to Fellner, I feel that the human condition has been ‘sliced and diced’. His bleak and severe presentations are riveting, making Bach’s rays of light all the more stunning and necessary to the musical progression.

I mentioned that Fellner played down the music’s power and bite, and it is the sole reservation I have concerning 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. However, it is a small blot on an impressive set of performances.

As for the soundstage, it is well detailed and rich with a little more reverberation than I find ideal. Overall, the sound is excellent and much preferred to the classic sets of Gould, Tureck, and Gulda. The liner notes are highly informative and insightful, although there are a few errors in the track listings. Given that Fellner is not a famous pianist, one would think that ECM would supply at least a couple of paragraphs about the young man – one would be wrong. Not a word of him is mentioned, although there are two photographs of him at the piano.

In summary, it is rare to find 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 Till Fellner offers us, and only Rosalyn Tureck in her Deutsche Grammophon set is equally effective in providing this particular mix of qualities.

In terms of additional comparisons, Fellner sounds very much like Keith Jarrett’s Bach at first blush. However, further examination reveals that Fellner’s rhythms are more elastic than Jarrett’s, and Jarrett is light-years removed from Fellner in conveying compelling emotional themes. Another recording of the Well Tempered Clavier that has some strong similarity with Fellner’s is Nonesuch set performed by Edward Aldwell, but Aldwell’s textures are much heavier.

Ultimately, I find the Fellner set an essential acquisition for Bach keyboard enthusiasts. I do prefer the piano versions by Tureck and Gould by a small margin, but those recordings do show their age. There is 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. The set will receive serious consideration as one of my Records of theYear 2004, and I strongly urge readers to consider its acquisition.

Don Satz

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