From the moment it was completed in 1722, Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier has succeeded far beyond the venerable composer’s desire to create a treatise that served the twin, mutually complimentary purposes of learning to play all manner of clavier instruments available at the time but also learn how to compose for them. Would that all musicians take on the same goal in their own studies and immerse themselves in both playing an instrument (including the voice) and writing for it. Whether or not the resulting compositions have any artistic merit is of no consequence. For, as the prolific Kapellmeister knew, just the attempt of crafting an opus for the instrument under study is bound to improve the student’s understanding. In particular, budding conductors (or instrumentalists eschewing their horsehair bows for the allure of the baton) need to compose then conduct a work of their own if they are ever to presume to bring to life the masterworks of others.
Till Fellner’s two-disc recording is a marvellous set on many levels. The twenty-four pairs of Prelude/Fugue cover an emotional and technical range that immediately reveals the high state of his art.
From the opening measures of the best-known Prelude in C Major, with its dreamy atmosphere underscored with direction and purpose (rekindled in 4, 6, 10 and 23) it’s clear Fellner has a well-thought-out point of view and the skills to express it. How marvellous (and all too rare) that he frequently rises above Legato “R” Us and tempers his lines with dry staccati that snap, crackle and pop, lifting and driving the music forward in its relentless search for consonance and joy. Look no further than the opening fugue or Prelude in B-flat Major for convincing samples of how less is more.
Quibbles are few and far between. Occasionally (Fugue in C-sharp Major) the upper register suffers from too much attack where just increasing the weight would let the line soar rather than be pushed into our ears. In some of the fugues, the episodes might benefit from a discreet breath and a touch more horizontal flow.
Truly outstanding are 9 (a beautifully shaped prelude and a fugue with energy to burn), 15 (rendered with impressive technical surety and a playful fugue whose tenor and tone belies the artistry required to reach this plane) and 24 (Fellner’s “misterioso” is as palpable as the observation of the repeats—can’t wait for the complete Beethoven sonatas!).
Students of composition of all eras (and their admirers who often love classical music but are hard-pressed to say why) can enjoy a master class about the evolution, use and value of repeated notes over the last few tracks. Clearly, Haydn and Mozart went to school on the “twinkle, twinkle” that still delights (Fugue in G-sharp Minor); the ensuing Prelude in A Major shows the effect of singular pitch recurrence heightening harmonic tension; Mozart may not have been able to imbue the finale of his Symphony in D Major, K.504 with its zest and drive without the thematic and harmonic inspiration contained in Fugue in B-flat Major; seconds later (Prelude in B-flat Minor) is a compelling example of saying the same thing over and over, using pedal points to anchor and lead the search for resolution.
Fellner invests all of his considerable talent into this storied book that has had such an incredible influence on both the practitioners and creators of Western music. The result displays an intelligent artist who is not beyond taking a few risks of his own (don’t miss the wild ride of Prelude in F Major). These performances most certainly deserve repeated hearings. JWR