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An interview with Till Fellner

Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth Concertos are appearing at the same time as your cycle of the thirty-two sonatas in some of the world's major concert halls. Is this a lucky accident or a logical development in your career?
I view the two cycles – the sonatas and the concertos – as long-term parallel projects, it’s been a wonderful experience to study and to perform all these pieces. Kent Nagano and I have played music together for over ten years. Some time ago we talked about a fairly large joint project, and when Kent took over as principal conductor in Montréal in 2006 we quickly agreed to focus on the Beethoven concertos.

Which of Nagano's artistic qualities do you most appreciate?
He's very precise yet very open-minded when it comes to interpretation. He also takes a great deal of time; we get together before rehearsals and give the details a thorough discussion. Kent really rehearses and works on the concertos rather than saving his time for the symphonies, as some conductors like to do.

How did your work with the Beethoven sonatas influence your understanding of the concertos, and vice versa?
There may be occasional points of contact between the two groups as regards details, but of course playing with an orchestra is a fundamentally different matter. You have a counterpart to play with and against it. Still, I'm especially interested in what's specific or unique to a piece rather than its common generic features. After all, every work tells you something new. My teacher, Alfred Brendel, once compared the five Beethoven concertos to a family: you might regard the first two as teenagers and the third as an earnest young man. That makes the Fourth the mother and the Fifth the father.

Could you pinpoint the contrast between the final two concertos more precisely?
The G-major requires freedom and flexibility, especially in the opening movement. The tempo needs many slight modifications and the transitions are absolutely crucial, there lies the challenge in the interplay with the orchestra. In comparison, the Fifth is a heroic piece through and through, but never martial! It's a hymn of freedom laid out as a large fresco.

What aspects of these two pieces do you feel have been neglected in performance? To put it another way, why do you think it’s appropriate to make a new recording of these popular repertoire pieces?
That's a question I basically never ask myself; I search for my own path to the pieces I play. But if there's a point where my ideas depart from tradition, then it's surely the tempo of the slow movements, which I feel have often been taken far too slow. The old editions put the 'Adagio un poco moto' of the Fifth in 4/4 instead of alle breve, which turns the movement into a completely different piece. Even Carl Czerny pointed out that the movement shouldn't drag. And taking the Andante of the Fourth con moto - 'with movement' - is another important item of information. In contrast, you have to be careful not to take Rondo of the Fifth too fast.

Looking at the sonatas, your colleague András Schiff once said that it took a while before he felt equal to the 'grandeur' of Beethoven's style. Can you sympathize with that?
It takes a long time to grasp any genuine masterpiece and you won’t find an ever-valid solution. Certain things I want to play right now, and then over and over again. That's why, for instance, I'm performing Schubert's Winterreise with Mark Padmore ...

You already released recordings of the Second and Third Concertos with Neville Marriner back in the early Nineties.
That was a leap into cold water! When I won the Clara Haskil Competition in 1993 I had an opportunity to tour Mexico with the Acaemy of St. Martin in the Fields playing all five concertos. My first live performance of the fifth concerto took place before some 11,000 people. That was pretty crazy! Then I repeatedly played all five concertos on two consecutive nights with the Vienna Chamber Philharmonic in 2003. Finally, when Kent offered me a large-scale joint project, I spontaneously chose the Beethoven concertos because I've had the most experience with them.

In April ECM will release your recording of Thomas Larcher's piano concerto Böse Zellen ['Malignant Cells'], where the piano is almost always prepared. Quite a contrast with Beethoven, wouldn't you say?
It certainly is! I'd already given the world première of Larcher’s Mumien ['Mummies'] for cello and piano with Heinrich Schiff back in 2002 [see ECM 1967]. And in autumn 2007 I took the solo part in the first performance of Böse Zellen for full orchestra in Innsbruck. The recording in summer 2008 with the Munich Chamber Orchestra was a natural continuation. Thomas Larcher is a composer I deeply admire and from whose pieces I gain a lot. They are highly original, and he's also an excellent pianist.
Interview: Anselm Cybinski

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Till Fellner was born in Vienna, where he studied with Helene Sedo-Stadler. Further studies took him to Alfred Brendel, Meira Farkas, Oleg Maisenberg, and Claus-Christian Schuster. He has been a welcome visitor with leading orchestras, in the great capitals of Europe, Japan, and the United States, and at many major festivals. Fellner plays chamber music with Heinrich Schiff and has a regular trio with Lisa Batiashvili and Adrian Brendel. Furthermore he gives lied recitals with singers such as Mark Padmore. In October 2008 Fellner began a seven-concert cycle encompassing the complete Beethoven sonatas. The entire cycle will be heard in New York, Washington, Tokyo, London, Paris, and Vienna through late 2010.
Fellner's Bach recordings for ECM (the "Well-tempered Clavier I" in 2004, and the "Inventionen und Sinfonien" in 2009) met with great acclaim from international music critics. On the latter release Jed Distler wrote in Gramophone magazine: "While Bach may have conceived his Inventions and Sinfonias as teaching pieces, Till Fellner's intelligent and characterful pianism consistently embraces the music behind the method book. Varied articulations and well conceived scaling of dynamics imbue the pianist's natural propensity for generating singing lines with shapely expression. … The Inventions and Sinfonias in Fellner's hands rank alongside the catalogue's strongest piano versions."
Details and updated tour schedule: www.tillfellner.com

The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal was founded in 1934. It has produced nearly a hundred records for different international labels earning numerous international awards, inluding two Grammys. Former artistic directors included personalities such as Igor Markevitch, Zubin Mehta, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and Charles Dutoit. Kent Nagano whose tenure as artistic director began in 2006 has led the orchestra to the United States (including its Carnegie Hall debut in March 2008) to Japan, South Korea and to Europe. Their first joint CD "Ideals of the French Revolution" was released in 2008.

Kent Nagano was born in California and started his career in 1978 as conductor of the Berkeley Symphony where he became a champion of the music of Olivier Messiaen and initiated a correspondence with him. Nagano's early professional years were spent in Boston, working in the opera house and as assistant conductor to Seiji Ozawa at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He played a key role in the world premiere of Messiaen's opera "Saint François d'Assise" at the request of the composer. In 1982 Nagano conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in the premieres of several orchestral compositions by Frank Zappa.
Nagano was music director of the Opéra de Lyon from 1988 to 1998 and served as principal conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester from 1992 to 1999. While principal conductor and artistic director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (2000-2006) he recorded works by Beethoven, Schoenberg, Bruckner, Alexander von Zemlinsky, and Gustav Mahler. Kent Nagano was appointed principal conductor at Los Angeles Opera starting from the 2001-2002 season. In May 2003, he was named the LA Opera's first ever Music Director, retaining the position until 2006. Nagano has been a regular guest at the Salzburg Festival, where he premièred Kaija Saariaho's “L'Amour de loin” in 2000. He also conducted the world première of John Adams' “The Death of Klinghoffer” in Brussels.
In 2006 he took his posts as music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and of the Bavarian State Opera. Nagano's repertoire in Montréal in the 2009/10 season includes a complete cycle of Beethoven's symphonies; while in Munich he conducts new productions of "Don Giovanni", "Dialogues des Carmélites" and "Die schweigsame Frau".
www.kentnagano.com


Illustrated booklet includes an essay by Paul Griffiths in English and German

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