Reinventing student works as masterworks

Bach: Inventionen und Sinfonien; Franzosische Suite V

Till Felner

ECM Records


Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias, relatively brief 2-part and 3-part contrapuntal works, were written as teaching pieces, designed for study of cantabile playing and the composing & improvising of counterpoint. They served as a ‘way station’ between the simple pieces of the notebooks and his more elaborate suites, partitas, and fugues. Thus, recordings of them have often been greeted with less fanfare than releases which featured these latter, challenging pieces.

But as any pianist, amateur or professional, will tell you, there’s a lot to the Inventions. They may be diminutive in scope; but to be played well, they require far more musicality and imagination than the technical drills of Hanon and Czerny. Till Fellner’s recording of the Inventions on ECM is a reminder of how wondrous these works are, both as studies but, more principally, as compositional miniatures in their own right. Not only is his technical execution of them brilliant – his whirlwind traversals of the d-minor and F-major Inventions are stunners – but Fellner also approaches  the works with an eye towards structure, shaping phrases and shading motives & countermotives through terraced dynamics and fastidious articulations.

French Suite V in G-major is a sentimental favorite; it’s the first one I studied as a youngster, and shortly thereafter, also the first I heard on record; Glenn Gould’s lightning-fast reading made me despair at my own, comparatively slothful, tempi. In addition to Gould, there are several wonderful renditions recorded – Schiff and Perahia immediately come to mind. Fellner’s version is worthy of comparison with these noteable antecedents.

Á la Gould , there are brisk, technically impressive, movements; the final gigue is particularly wonderful, balancing contrapuntal clarity with tour de force showmanship. However, unlike my cherished Gould LP, Fellner remembers that these pieces are meant to emulate and evoke dance music. He thus takes most of the movements at tempi which could be realistically executed by actual dancing humans. Thereby, his reading is elegant, often poignant; both the Sarabande and Loure are simply breathtaking.

For Bach-lovers, choosing among recordings can be like choosing between children – how can you, really, say that you like one best? But Fellner’s Bach has quickly joined my extended family of recordings in heavy rotation.

 Till Fellner


(I last wrote about Fellner for File Under ? in 2004. You can see that article here.)

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